The Risks Of Writing A Driver’s Manifesto

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This past Tuesday, IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe wrote an article for Racer.com where he spoke out on a very controversial subject that he is apparently very passionate about. After reading it, I came to one of two immediate conclusions – James Hinchcliffe is either very brave or very naïve.

If you haven’t seen it or don’t care to follow the link, Hinch is advocating for some type of driver’s association to give drivers better representation and protection; not only in contract negotiations, but in case of a serious on-track incident.

He goes out of his way to stress that he is not looking to start a union, because as Hinchcliffe notes in his writing “I hate the word ‘union’ because there are so many negative connotations associated with it”. He’s right. If he wants to set off a barrage of red flags among the owners, let it get out that the drivers are trying to start a union.

Without getting into a political discussion, I’ve never been a fan of unions. Those opinions vary depending on what part of the country you live in. I’ve lived in the south all of my life, where unions are frowned upon to the extent that companies move here for that very reason. If I lived in Michigan, where unions are prevalent – my opinion may be different. But no matter the industry, the word “union” can be very polarizing. It’s probably best that Hinchcliffe stressed that point if he has any interest in getting this thing off the ground.

He also stresses that the drivers would not want a chunk of the TV money, as has happened in other sports. It’s a good thing, since I don’t think there’s much there anyway. The NFL has an abundance of riches going to the owners from television. It’s so much that all thirty-two teams could play every game in front of completely empty stadiums (or is it stadia?) and the owners would still make money, even with the exorbitant salaries they pay players under the salary cap.

It’s my understanding that none of the TV money from the new IndyCar contract with NBC will go directly to the team owners. It may allow the series to help fund the Winner’s Circle money to the teams, but the bulk of it stays with the series. I could be wrong, but that’s how I perceive it.

No, Hinchcliffe is speaking out in favor of drivers like himself, who came up through the ranks without any substantial outside money. You know – the ones who came up on talent alone. Young drivers don’t make any money to speak of until they get up to the top series – what used to be known as the Verizon IndyCar Series. When they get there, few of them can afford any type of agent so they are left to negotiate their first contract on their own.

Think back to when you were twenty years old. Can you even imagine the thought of negotiating a deal for a substantial salary? At that age, there were only three things important to me – beer, girls and junk food, and not necessarily in that order. Anything else at that stage in my life was gravy and not that important.

The mindset of a twenty year-old is ripe for being taken advantage of. Hinch didn’t name names, but he noted that you don’t have to go very far into the paddock to find drivers who had stories to tell of how they were shafted in their first IndyCar deal. He also pointed out that there were drivers in this year’s paddock that drove for free. He correctly points out that drivers should not have to risk their lives for free. He thinks there should be a standard league minimum set, just like in other sports. Perhaps the owners think that if there are many more available drivers than seats, and if drivers are willing to drive for free – why pay them? I’m all about free-enterprise and I’m not big in telling owners how they have to spend their hard-earned money, but Hinchcliffe may be on to something with this point.

The thing is where does this money come from? Some of the smaller budget teams are barely breaking even, if at all. I have no clue what drivers make, so let’s just use the figure of $100,000 as a league minimum for easy math. If Juncos expands to a two-car team with two fulltime drivers, is it fair to mandate that they have to come up with $200,000 to pay their drivers when they are skimping to make ends meet? If the league contributes that money to each team and there are twenty-five teams on the grid next year – that’s $2.5 million that the series is on the hook for. Does Team Penske need an extra $300,000 to pay their drivers? No, but where do you draw the line where you aren’t punishing teams for being too successful? It’s much more complicated than just mandating teams to pay a league minimum.

One of the bigger issues that Hinch brings up is group insurance. He never mentioned Robert Wickens in his article, but I wonder how much his current injury situation has to do with his motivation. I do not pretend to know if Wickens had any type of healthcare insurance in place, but if he didn’t – he is looking at huge medical costs for the coming months.

As Hinchcliffe points out, it’s not the same for an IndyCar driver to get health insurance as it is for you and me. It would be tough enough for me if I weren’t covered by my employer, and I don’t have to divulge that I drive an open-wheel, open-cockpit car at 225 mph just inches away from my competitor with a concrete wall to slam into, if something goes wrong. I imagine those premiums are rather hefty and as Hinchcliffe says – it’s impossible for drivers being paid nothing to be able to afford exorbitant premiums. He goes on to say how sad it is that drivers feel like disposable items. Again, I don’t know what the answer is but Hinch is bringing up some very valid points.

James Hinchcliffe just didn’t get a wild hair and write out his own Driver’s White Paper one night. Not only have these things been on his mind, but he divulges that he has had extensive conversations with his fellow drivers about these issues.

What tells me that Hinchcliffe is not naïve, is that when he wrote that if the drivers were locked together in a room, his ideas would have unanimous support among them. The breakdown would occur when the drivers went back to their team owners to present the idea. That’s where the roadblock would be. Drivers would rightfully be reluctant to make any demands out of fear of losing their jobs – especially when they already know there are talented drivers out there willing to work for free.

You don’t have to look too far in other sports to find examples of players being blackballed by the owners for being too outspoken about labor issues. During the last NFL lockout a few years ago, the Player’s Rep for the Titans (Kevin Mawae) was also President of the NFLPA (NFL Players Association) Executive Committee. When the lockout was over, a new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) was in place and players finally got to training camps – Mawae abruptly retired from the NFL. Speculation was that he had infuriated NFL owners and that he would never be signed by any team. That’s a story that is similar and frequent among sports leagues when it comes to labor disputes.

Hinchcliffe theorizes that because of this fear of losing their jobs by creating labor unrest, that it might be best if this cause is championed by a retired driver that has nothing to lose. I’ve seen where some have said it’s unfair for Hinchcliffe to lay this on retired drivers, but I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. Oakland Raiders guard Gene Upshaw played for the team from 1967 through 1981. In 1983, he was elected President of the NFLPA and served in that capacity until his sudden death in 2008. While his methods may be up for debate – the fact that he served so long immediately after his retirement backs up Hinchcliffe’s idea.

IndyCar drivers love what they do, which is proven if some will drive for free. They should be taken care of, but what defines being taken care of? Is it feasible to pay a series minimum? If so, how much? Should driver contracts be approved by the series in order to protect a young driver with no representation? Is a group health insurance plan even possible with the high costs associated with such high risks? Should this be a task taken on by a recently retired driver, so that no current driver feels the risk of retaliation? Should this even be done at all? Whether you call it a union, or a drivers association – it’s sort of the same thing, when you get down to it.

There are a lot more questions than answers at this point. But after I re-read Hinchcliffe’s manifesto and then wrote this out, I’ve convinced myself of one thing – Hinchliffe is not naïve, he’s brave. I don’t fully agree with some of what Hinchcliffe said, but it took a lot of guts to go public with his thoughts. Hopefully, he doesn’t regret it in the future.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “The Risks Of Writing A Driver’s Manifesto”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I support his position, but I just can’t see where the money would come from in this series when a lot of teams are lucky to break even and sponsors are hard to come by. No driver should have to risk their life for free, then again nobody is forcing them to strap into the cockpit either, but when you’re that passionate about something you do what it takes to achieve your dream and hope that it all works out in the end.

    • Shyam Cherupalla Says:

      Guys I think we as fans stop needing to make excuses to Indycar and the Team owners. I know its my favorite sport and for many here as well and we are all worried about its fragility and want to see it thrive. But if an owner is spending $5M-$7M for a car (which is what I heard as a minimum) spending $100K (if that is the minimum for a driver) is 1/50th or 1/70th of the whole budget. Are we saying the most important part of the show will not get paid but even the mechanics, the engineers, the PR person, the truck drivers all get paid for working in the team but not the driver. I don’t think a Race team Engineer is not getting paid atleast in the 6 figures. You don’t think an Engineer will work for free in a race team do you and why is the driver an exception Its not fair that one person doesn’t get paid in the team?

      I don’t understand how in Eighties before the peak of CART, if you watch Youtube videos of races, they actually posted on the broadcast what is the winnings for the race and these were $500k to close to a $1M for any race. And in this day-and-age the Indycar economy can’t come up with that same amount money? I am not saying it should a 2x or 3x of what it was in eighties about the same amount and I will bet you the whole paddock of drivers would be elated. I think something is amiss here

      • billytheskink Says:

        Total race purses in the 1980s rarely exceeded $1,000,000 outside of Indianapolis, and that is what was divided among and paid out to ALL drivers in a race. Or rather, that is what was paid out to all of the entries/teams in a race. The top drivers may well have received most or all of that prize money, but most drivers only received a fraction of the posted money that they “won” with the team keeping the rest.

        Robin Miller raises a big stink about how ridiculous it is for today’s drivers to accept prize money checks at the Indy 500 banquet when they don’t receive most of the money they are listed as winning. I would agree with him if that was not how it has long been. I doubt even Ray Harroun and Cyrus Patscke

        As far as total purses, Indycar pays out $1,000,000+ per race when adding Leader’s Circle program payouts and finishing bonuses. This is a bit more than non-Indy purses in the 80s in total, but not when adjusting for inflation. The top purse outside of Indianapolis in 1988 was at Pocono, $794,125 with $92,789 going to Winner Bobby Rahal and the Truesports team. That is less than what is paid out now in total (over $1 million total and about $100,000 to the winner), but after inflation those 1988 numbers become $1.6 million and $188,000.

        One place this is not true is at Indianapolis, where the 1988 payouts of $5,025,400 and the $804,853 winner’s sharewould be worth $10.2 million and $1.6 million adjusting for inflation. This is less than the 2018 payouts of $13 million with about $2.5 million going to the winner. However, this does not leave it immune to fair criticism. While Indy prize money has outpaced inflation, so have many costs to racing teams, the IMS facility, and (on the other end of the payout spectrum) fans. Also, the Indy purse has stagnated since 2008, declining from $14.3 million to just over $13 million in this past decade.

        Bottom line, the series needs more money coming in if it is to let more money flow out.

      • BrandonWright77 Says:

        While your proposed scenario would be great, it does not reflect the reality of the current world and probably is not possible with the current state of play. I doubt many, if any, team members or engineers make six figures. A lot of them are unemployed for the half the year and have other jobs just to stay afloat.

        Read up on how the Leaders Circle works and you’ll understand more about how purses work nowadays, it’s nothing like in the 80’s.

  2. Having worked at K & K 30 years ago at that time all tracks and major sanctioning bodies , CART, SCCA, NASCAR, etc purchased participant accident insurance providing death and disability , medical expense and weekly indemnity payments. Limits of coverage were varied from track to track and sanctioning body . Better the coverage the more it cost. Having been away from the industry for so long I don’t know the current structure but assume it has not changed a great deal. I will assume Indy Car has at least a $1M in medical coverage per occurrence. Each Team or individual driver can purchase their own exces coverage at their own expense. As a Canadian citizen Wickens could be transferred to a Canadian medical facility for treatment under the individual Province healthcare insurance .

    • To the best of my knowledge, Canadian provincial govt. health insurance requires you to live (ie work, pay takes) in the country for a minimum of 6 months a year. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that Wickens would qualify for anything unless there’s some sort of back door.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Instead of a mandated minimum salary, a driver-exclusive cut of the prize money seems like a more reasonable goal, though not an inherently easy one to achieve. As it stands now, drivers may or may not get a cut of the prize money (which includes Leader’s Circle payouts, Mr. Robin Miller) depending on their contract with the team. With a flat-across-the-board, mandated driver-exclusive payout, that structure could still exist (as could current driver salaries and/or cuts of sponsorship brought to teams). Drivers in demand could likely continue to negotiate for more money the same way they do now while drivers trying to break in, guys who are driving for free, would be assured of earning something for their effort and risk.

    This, of course, isn’t as easy as Mark Miles simply snapping his fingers and cutting a check. Even a seemingly nominal driver minimum such as $5,000 per driver per entry or start adds $100,000+ to the cost of each race purse (which already stands at $1,000,000+ when adding Leader’s Circle payouts and finishing bonuses). Coming up with that money at Indianapolis isn’t probably an issue, but elsewhere it possibly, if not likely, would be.

    I don’t know enough about insurance to comment on how achievable Hinch’s idea is, but it is something that would be in everyone’s best interest to explore. To this race fan, it sounds like a great sponsorship opportunity for an insurance company, but such companies have not traditionally spent much money in racing. I suspect that they have never been all that comfortable endorsing high risk sporting activities like auto racing.

  4. Bill H. in Philly Says:

    “At that age, there were only three things important to me – beer, girls and junk food, and not necessarily in that order.”

    Careful, George…Words like that will keep you off the Supreme Court.

  5. quote:
    In 1961, Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa and star NASCAR driver Curtis Turner tried to create the Federation of Professional Athletes, a union that would prominently feature NASCAR drivers. The Teamsters offered loans to save Charlotte Motor Speedway, which was on the verge of failure because of massive cost overruns incurred in building the track.

    The drivers were offered benefit plans including pensions, insurance and scholarships for the children of drivers who died in crashes.

    While some drivers initially expressed interest in the union, prior to a race at Bowman-Gray Stadium in North Carolina, France laid down the law prohibiting any union members from ever participating in NASCAR events. According to accounts of the day, France told the racers, “I’ll use a pistol to enforce it. I have a pistol and know how to use it.”

  6. I was in the UAW union while working at the International Harvester Company motor truck plant forge shop in Ft. Wayne, Indiana while going to college. It is unlikely that we would have received any wage raises without the union help.
    My granddaughter is a school teacher. Our idiot governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, abolished unions for school teachers. That has had a devastating effect on the morale of schoolteachers in Wisconsin and has affected them in numerous negative ways.
    Hinch makes many good points that deserve a follow up by the IndyCar series.

    • Even Franklin Roosevelt said public unions would be a disaster. The people bargaining against themselves and for more money when the voters and legislatures have voted on the funding. Not a good thing. Today they are the strongest part of the labor union movement. They probably should have remained illegal.

      In the private sector, I’ve always felt that a weak union is the best situation. It can help prevent unfairness in a lot of areas, but not strong enough to hurt the company, as so many powerful unions have done to our industries in the past. Or abuse pension funds.

      I think the players union has all but ruined major league baseball. So the last thing I want to see in Indycar is a union. And really, I don’t think it could work. The tracks do not hire the men and women that drive for them. They come of their own volition. When we talk about “owners”, its not the same as baseball or football owners who sign the players. The tracks don’t sign drivers. The Indy Racing League does not really sign drivers. Technically anyone with the proper qualifications can try to qualify for the races, whether the work for another or are their own owner.

  7. It sounds at least a little cruel that team owners seem OK with the fact that some IndyCar drivers don’t have any health insurance an let those drive for them in spite of not being insured. Here’s a big thank you to Hinch for debunking the myth this was any different, though it really should be. If you ask me, I feel a responsible team owner should step in if one of his drivers does not have his own insurance and payto have him insured for the events that driver is steering his car – without using the cost of that as a bargain in contract negotiations because then, the sole risk would be all on the driver again.

  8. I had no idea not every driver was covered with health insurance by his team. I can understand occasional drivers, but not full time. (I am not saying PTers shouldn’t have insurance).

  9. Are drivers Independent Contractors or employees with the teams? If an IC then it’s up to the individual to arrange for coverage ,if an employee I will assume there is an exclusion in the group health coverage for injuries sustained as a result so any on track activity, otherwise the premium would be exorbitant for the employer. It’s a tough situation for a driver but driving is a voluntary endeavor in which risks of injury are well known

  10. Do you hear the crickets chirping …….? That’s the sound of the other drivers supporting Hinch.

    It says a lot on many fronts.

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