When Did Ride-Selling Become The Norm?
Last week, I wrote about James Jakes being named to the second car at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Although I presented facts along with my own opinion regarding the racing prowess of James Jakes, I really considered it more of commentary on the practice of ride-buying.
But as I read through the comment section and seeing what everyone else had to say, I began wondering if this was a practice of ride-buying or ride-selling. Someone astutely pointed out that had Jakes or another driver not come forward with a big check for that second car at Schmidt – the car would have probably been parked for the year.
I’ve read and heard a lot of comments from people that I respect regarding ride-buying in the last few days. Their take is that ride-buying is a necessary evil and it is so rampant in today’s racing, that we should not even concern ourselves with it. They say if it weren’t for ride-buying (selling), there would be fewer cars in every series and in some cases – no series. Why is that?
Yes, I understand that ride-buying has been around for years. Even the infamous Joel Thorne of the late thirties could have been classified as a ride-buyer, except that he brought his own cars that he designed and built. The thing is; Thorne had the results to back him up. In his first three of the four Indianapolis 500’s he was entered in – he had three Top-Tens and one Top-Five, and was running at the end of all three. His final 500 was in 1941, when he crashed in Turn One on Lap Five and finished thirty-first. But George Robson won the 1946 race in a car built by Joel Thorne, so he wasn’t just a rich playboy that wanted to go racing.
But things are far different today. Drivers are expected to hunt around for sponsorship and bring it to the owners that have cars available to the highest bidder.
I have two questions that I really don’t have the answer to. First, when did this become the norm? Second, am I alone in thinking that owners have gotten lazy by making drivers go out and get their funding?
Comparing today’s racing to the sixties is like comparing apples to oranges, due to the cost of racing in today’s environment. A sponsor’s logo was rare on the car. The Bowes Seal Fast Special that took AJ Foyt to his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1961 was the rare exception in those days. Ol’ Calhoun that Parnelli Jones made famous in the early sixties was officially known as the Willard Battery Special. These were sponsors that were gotten by the respective owners. Foyt and Jones didn’t go and make presentations to the sponsor.
It’s still that way among the big three teams in IndyCar. Roger Penske leveraged his board presence with Philip Morris to attain sponsors Marlboro and Miller Beer, which were both Philip Morris properties in the eighties and nineties. Penske has since networked his way with Verizon, Hitachi, PPG and others to help sponsor his growing four-car team.
Chip Ganassi has had an ongoing relationship with Target since 1990 – currently the longest running IndyCar sponsorship package in the paddock. Although he has earned the nickname “Cheap” Ganassi – he pays his drivers. They don’t pay him.
More recently, Michael Andretti has been a model on how to drum up and service sponsors. He has been creative in his marketing approach, being one of the first to bring liquor companies into racing. He has since brought on soft-drink brands such as Snapple, Dr. Pepper, RC Cola and Sun-Drop; as well as convenience store chain 7-Eleven. Andretti has also brought on major companies like XM Satellite Radio, Arca/Ex, Motorola, Go-Daddy and DHL. Michael Andretti has proven himself to be even more successful as an owner than he was in his very successful driving career.
Even AJ Foyt, who is not considered one of the front-running teams, has a long-running relationship with ABC Supply and provides a fully funded ride on the IndyCar grid. Ed Carpenter has what I’m assuming is full support from Fuzzy’s Vodka. But other than those mentioned, I’m not sure there are any other fully funded rides out there. Dale Coyne’s funding from the Boy Scouts is a little nebulous. I’m not sure exactly what the arrangement is, but I’m not sure they were fully funding Justin Wilson for the past few years.
My question again is when did it become the exception for a car-owner to have a fully funded ride and hire drivers based strictly on talent?
In my eyes, a car owner is already a successful businessperson. He or she should be well-connected with other businesspeople and be used to prospecting for business. In this case, they’re prospecting for sponsorship. They are already adept at making formal business presentations. Is it really to fair to throw a driver into a boardroom and expect he or she to interact on the same level with decision makers as skilled and experienced business people? I wouldn’t think so.
Many drivers coming up today have, at least, some exposure to seeking cash. But some of the older drivers that are used to having fully funded rides, find themselves like a fish out of water. Case in point is Ryan Briscoe. The eight-time winner had a fully funded ride at Team Penske in between two fully funded stints at Chip Ganassi Racing. He has never had to go out and find money for himself to buy his way onto the grid. Now, he finds himself in a position to find money quickly or be sitting on the sidelines at St. Petersburg. Given his inexperience at looking for sponsorship, chances are he’ll be luck to land an Indy-only ride.
I keep going back to Conor Daly. He is an American driver with a large following and a wealth of talent. Does he ever stand a chance of getting hired on talent alone? Or does he have to get someone to pull whatever strings are necessary to find enough funding to put him into a car. Just like the real world – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I’ll go back even further. Al Unser, III appeared to have almost as much ability behind the wheel as his famous father, grandfather and great-uncle. Yet his career stalled out in 2008 after four partial seasons in Indy Lights. His desire or talent wasn’t lacking, but the funding was. Consequently – Mini Al, Just Al, Al III or whatever he wanted to be called, never once raced in an IndyCar. He is now thirty-two and his dream of continuing the family tradition is probably over. If he hasn’t set foot in any type of open-wheel car since the 2008 Freedom 100, it’s probably safe to say it isn’t going to happen for him. Almost seven years out of a car is too long.
I’ll reiterate – I understand the highly exaggerated cost of racing today versus fielding a car in the sixties. Some teams will run two cars I order to allow the second car to help cover the first. Is that fair? I don’t think so. If I was the marketing manager of XYZ Company and I had committed $10 million to fund Conor Daly in a second car at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports; I would be ticked to find out that $4 million was going to fund James Hinchcliffe’s ride in the first car.
Why can’t all car owners go out and find money. I know it’s a tough job, but if they don’t have time to do it themselves, they should go hire someone who specializes in finding sponsorship; rather than sitting around waiting on a driver to bring a big check.
I’m picking on Sam Schmidt and James Jakes because they are the most recent example – but does Schmidt really think that Jakes is going to be able to relay valuable technical feedback to the team and be able to push Hinchcliffe? Rather than taking money from someone that is probably a perennial backmarker, it seems that Schmidt would have been better served to go out and find funding, then hire the best driver available. That way, SPM would have a formidable one-two punch that could compete for the championship week in and week out.
I know many are saying that it’s easy for me to talk about finding money, but actually getting it is another thing. I didn’t say that it was easy. Succeeding in any business never is. It takes work – hard work. But look at the money that teams manage to find. Who would’ve thought that Fuzzy’s would cough up enough to fund a full-time car for several years? The money is out there, but car owners now seem content to let lesser drivers go get it instead of finding it themselves and building their team the way they want it with the drivers they want, rather than a driver that happens to bring the biggest check.
My friend John McLallen proposed this is a chicken or the egg thing. No, it’s not. It’s just that car owners have found that there are drivers out there desperate enough for a ride, that they’ll scrape up the money themselves. It’s less work for the owners, so they end up taking the path of least resistance.
Over time, the series suffers, because drivers are being hired that fans don’t care about. Some of these drivers are not near as qualified as other unemployed drivers, but they either have better connections or they are more adept at speaking in a boardroom. Apathy sets in among fans, drivers and other owners. It’s not a good situation if this becomes the norm, which is the direction things are headed if they haven’t gotten there already.
Perhaps IndyCar should mandate that teams be able to prove that they are providing a certain percentage of funding on each car, or they cannot run a car for the season. Will that motivate them to find more money? No. It’ll probably just significantly reduce car count.
But there’s got to be a better way than the current system of holding rides and drivers hostage through ride-selling to the highest bidder. I just can’t think what it might be.