The Uncertainty Of A Career In Racing

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Yesterday, we learned that CFH Racing laid off eight employees on Monday morning in order to tighten up their budgets. Two of the eight were members of the O’Gara family. Sarah Fisher is married to Andy O’Gara. The two of them make up half of the ownership group at CFH Racing – the other two being Ed Carpenter and oil & natural gas businessman Wink Hartman.

Losses in the oil business this past year have taken its toll on Hartman’s fortune. For the past four years, Hartman has pretty much funded the car of Josef Newgarden out of his own pocket. There have been sporadic one-off sponsorships like Go-Pro and Century 21; but most of the time, Newgarden’s sidepods have been sporting the name Hartman Oil. The search for a full-time sponsor for Newgarden continues, but it appears that Hartman may be carrying the load again.

Things are even murkier regarding the No.20 car. For the past two seasons, Ed Carpenter has driven the ovals only, while a road & street course specialist was hired for each of the past two seasons. There is speculation that unless additional funding can be found, The No.20 car may be parked for the non-ovals and run only the five ovals on the schedule with Carpenter behind the wheel. It’s unclear where longtime sponsor Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka will be in this scenario. While it will most likely adorn the sidepods when Carpenter is driving, some think it’s possible that Fuzzy’s may be on Newgarden’s car when and if the No.20 car isn’t running.

Much of what I just wrote is pure speculation, but one hard and cruel fact is – eight people lost their jobs on Monday.

Unfortunately, this situation is apparently not uncommon. It’s my understanding that there are some teams who release most of their staff for the offseason and then re-hire the ones that are still available the next spring. It’s not an ideal way for a team to build stability. If a crewmember was released by Team A in October, but Team B starts re-hiring in the spring two weeks before Team A does – what do you think the chances are that the said crewmember is still around for Team A when they re-hire for the next season? Probably not very good, if the crewmember was any good. Team loyalty probably only goes so far when another team is willing to hire you now. That’s one explanation for the camaraderie within the paddock – they’ve all worked with each other at one time or another.

It’s also not an ideal situation for crewmembers, either. They get an unwanted four to five month unpaid vacation each year. Is the pay during the season good enough to cover the down time? Probably not. I have no idea what the average IndyCar crewmember makes, but it’s probably less than you think. Many of them do it for the love of the sport; but love can’t pay all the bills.

Crewmembers aren’t the only ones in racing that have tenuous employment. Engineers, PR Representatives, truck drivers and a myriad of behind-the scenes positions that most teams have are always subject to a sponsor’s check clearing the bank. For businesses operating with multi-million dollar budgets, they sure have a lot of employees living hand-to-mouth.

And don’t think that drivers are immune to such uncertainty. Not all drivers live the exotic lifestyle of Helio Castroneves. Many drivers are having to cut corners, mind their pennies and eat their fair share of Ramen Noodles, just to keep their dream alive of someday driving for a Penske-like team; where they would be earning a substantial income, having their expenses covered and not having to worry about hunting down sponsorship for next season.

And this frugality is not limited to teams. There are many that work directly for IndyCar, although not as many as there used to be once they let go a lot of key experienced personnel a year or so ago. Those that remain probably make an income that would surprise you – and not in a good way. Many of them travel to every race, but that’s not as glamorous or inviting as it sounds.

I have attended three to four races every season for the past few years. During those race weekends, I’m privileged to be in the respective media centers alongside many of the IndyCar employees. I can promise you, their life on those weekends is not glamorous. They work their tails off! They work incredibly long hours, normally fifteen-plus hours Thursday through Sunday night in their various roles to make sure a race weekend goes off without a hitch. There are a lot of moving pieces at any given track on a race weekend, many of which you’d never think of. It’s a daunting job to pull it off, but they do it very well.

Don’t forget the paid media that cover the races. I don’t count myself, because I do this for free and I answer to no one. I write on my time and only have self-imposed deadlines. If I fail to post something someday, I won’t lose my job here. I’m paid by my day job. But for the paid media, this is their day job. They have to meet deadlines and are threatened by the ever-changing technology in how sporting events are covered. Twenty-five years ago, newspapers and magazines were king. Newspapers are now hanging by a thread in most markets and print magazines are an afterthought. Those still around have shifted to skeleton crews as they battle constantly shrinking margins. The writers we’ve read for decades are now all struggling for the same shrinking audience. If that was ever a glamorous lifestyle, it isn’t any longer.

So what is it that continues to draw people to a career in racing? For a few, it’s just a job. It’s good experience and something that looks good on a resume before they move on. To most, however, it’s the love of the sport. That’s the intoxicating appeal to the mechanics, engineers, drivers, series employees, members of the media and even the lowly bloggers who do this for free. That’s the one thing we all share – a passion for IndyCar racing. One thing we all share is that we love the Verizon IndyCar Series. For all of its problems – and yes, there are many; what keeps us all coming back is our love for the sport.

It would be tough to work in this sport without being a fan first. Some say that the best way to get a job in an NFL front-office, is to not be a fan and treat the job as a business and like any other job. I’m not sure that’s possible in today’s IndyCar environment. Without the allure of going to work at a race track as a fan, I’m not sure that many people would choose it as a career. The passion for the sport is the hook.

The eight people that lost their jobs at CFH on Monday will probably not be the last this offseason. They may only be the first. Unless you work for Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, uncertainty is probably a big part of your life if you choose to stay in racing. Maybe they all already have winter-time employment lined up. I don’t know. But my bet is that every single one of those eight people will be in the paddock at St. Petersburg in March. Why? Because they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In the meantime, I wish them well this offseason.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “The Uncertainty Of A Career In Racing”

  1. I’ve said it very often, the only way you could be a race car driver is if it’s truly a passion. No way would I go through all the hoops and what I consider bullshit they have to go through just to drive the damn car — heavy on the fundraising and self marketing. But then again it’s not my passion. You gotta REALLY want it. It’s not just in IndyCar, but all levels of the sport, including NASCAR to some extent. Even the dirt-track guys have to scrounge up money for their own car to supplement what they personally drop into it. As for the crews, etc. probably the same deal. I wonder how many have two jobs, including an off-season job. This element of scrounging for sponsorship is the single biggest element of racing I dislike.

  2. Well done George. (No surprise there). We can only hope that the eight unfortunate folks let go at CFH Racing did not include members of Newgarden’s pit crew.

  3. I have often wondered in recent years just how much fun driving these cars are anymore, with all the safety equipment. I know its needed, but not even being able to turn your head to look to the side, depending on your spotter, shoved down low in the car, just seems to me like it would take some of the fun out of racing.

    Teams have to do what they have to do to stay viable. If things turn around, hopefully they can begin to hire some people back. It does come down to Indycar management getting their act together. A rising tide lifts all boats.

  4. Keep on keepin’ on George we outsiders appreciate the relentless volunteer work you do.I am sure there are days when it is a struggle to write. I stumbled across your site by accident years ago now and I read it pretty much religiously.

    I voted yes because because I don’t have to work for an IndyCar team or IndyCar itself. As much as I follow this sport, I instinctively know that if I was on the inside looking out I would have a completely different perspective of reality. So, in a way, I get to live the fantasy of looking in from the outside, so it perpetuates the my delusional fantasy.

    I personally knew a driver growing up that won the Indy 500. Our Dad’s raced in the SCCA together for many years, so I was able to absorb limited insight from inside by indirectly hearing updates through the years of what was happening in his career. I was in the outer, periphery of his existence. When I graduated from college I called him so see if his team was hiring in any capacity, I got his answering machine (this was before voicemail, just dated myself) and I never got a call back by him or his Dad. The financial realities of racing are truly exorbitant. How it carries on in its current state in this economy is short of inconceivable.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I’m reminded of the Paul Page’s words about the late Gary Avrin from the 1996 CART season review show.

    “Dedicated to the sport… Without his kind of people there cannot be any form of racing.”

    Page was speaking specifically of Avrin and his fellow corner workers, but these words ring true for everyone that George mentions in today’s post. If you are at the track and have the opportunity, I would encourage you to thank those who work hard to make the sport we all love a reality.

  6. George, you do all this work out of your passion for racing and you still have a product more than once a week for the entire year!! And we do appreciate it too!

    As for the paid media, I can’t imagine being on the road that much and then nothing for months. (Maybe cover other sports?) How does one raise kids on that type of schedule and salary!! I have often wondered about travel expenses and whether there is a charter or one flies commercial.

    I was never good at writing on demand, so I would have been a complete failure.

  7. I think that a few years after college as a pit crew member would be a lot of fun. Particularly the pit crew for a team like Hendricks and Joe Gibbs in NASCAR where the crews are always working out and are there for their athleticism. In IndyCar, the crews are pretty much members of the garage and there is not much room for a novice mechanic.

  8. George, this may be one of your best pieces. I spent many hours and days at IMS, MIS, Cleveland the Indiana State Fairgrounds mile, Terre Haute, IRP, Paragon, and other tracks for many years, shooting primarily for AP, the Indy newspapers and Carl Hugness. I sometimes made decent money bit I was doing it because I loved being about racing and racing people.
    Would I do it again? Not the way everything, especially rights to images and where they can be sold is so controlled by sponsor money and photo positions are so limited, often by really useless “safety” concerns.
    Do I regret spending so much of my live covering auto racing? Not for a second!

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