The 'Major Leagues' of racing are no place for ride-buyers


 by Cássio Côrtes
July 26, 2004

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Editor's Note: Cássio Côrtes is a young Brazilian journalist who writes for AutoRacing1.com, and will be doing more with us now.  Multilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish and French), Mr. Cortes brings a fresh South American perspective to our staff.

In spite of pocketing dozens of millions of dollars every year during their heyday, The Beatles kept telling us that they didn’t care too much for money: it couldn’t buy them love.

Yet this venerable piece of Lennon & McCartney’s wisdom seems highly ignored around open-wheel racing’s paddocks these days. The pinnacles of motorsport skill, both in America and overseas, are largely occupied by not the fastest and most skilled drivers, but by the wealthiest ones.

Now imagine the following news piece: In a stunning announcement, the New York Yankees have decided to field up-and-coming Brazilian Cassio Cortes instead of Derek Jeter for the next World Series. Yankee management claimed financial reasons for the substitution: “Whereas Jeter was costing us 18.9 million a year, Cortes will bring to the franchise that exact same amount, giving us a much-needed infuse of cash flow”.

We all know such nonsense will never happen, no matter how fat Mr. Cortes’ wallet may be (not very, by the way). The reason is simple: it’s called Major League Baseball, those first two words symbolizing the fact that only the very best are allowed in.

This common sense paradigm has been scrapped in many forms of racing today, and it degrades the racing from one of a sport, to just a show.

Anywhere between 20 to 30 percent of the current Champ Car, IRL and Formula One fields are comprised by drivers who, although may have the talent to be racing among the world’s best, have not reached their current position of privilege - circa only 60 spots on each season - through their own merits against the stopwatch.

While some may argue that these ride-buyers hardly do influence the outcome of a race, being relegated to finish one or two laps down each Sunday (or five or six, if you were naïve enough to buy your way into Minardi), they do hurt the spectacle.

Again, that's arguable: “If it weren’t for the rides for sale, Paul Tracy would have never been able to impress people in his Dale Coyne debut in ’91, same thing for Nelson Piquet driving a four-year old McLaren rebadged as an Ensign in the ’78 German Grand Prix”.

True. But those were different days. Champ Car’s field in the early ’90s and F1’s in the late ’70s often didn’t allow the smallest teams to even start on race day, as 30-something cars would be battling for 24 or 26 spots on the grid. Young drivers who believed in their talents could prove themselves worthy by merely qualifying those severely underfunded efforts for the Sunday race.

(If a certain Mr. Cortes showed up with a couple of hundred thousand on Friday, sure, he would get to do a few practice and qualifying laps, but come race day, he’d be watching from the grandstands).

With the current economics of racing reducing these fields drastically, everyone who shows up makes it to the big show. If that is our current reality, then those fans on the stands, who are no longer able to see 26 cars crowding the streets of Long Beach once the green flag drops, deserve at least to be treated to some action provided by the top available 18 (and “top” here means “most-known” as much as it does “fastest”).

So listen to the ancient tune, team owners (and Gentilozzi, Kalkhoven and Forsythe. And Bernie, too): sure, ride-buyers’ money might help you pay a few bills around the shop. But it can’t buy you the fans’ love nor earn your series any respect as a 'major league' sport. 

Buying your way into the minor leagues to show the world how good of a driver you are is one thing, but there's something wrong with the business model when the top athletes/drivers have to buy their way into the major leagues.  The teams and the racing series should run on a proper business model in which they get the sponsorship and then hire the best athlete/driver that money will buy.

Then and only then will racing be viewed as a true sport instead of a side-show.

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Others by Cássio

Da Matta - I want to be in Champ Car next year

Winning hearts and minds - can you make a Champ Car fan out of a NASCAR fan?

Drifting into the mainstream

Why Champ Car needs to look at Savannah

Who will be Champ Car's next Canadian idol?

Champ Car must partner with business-to-consumer companies

Toyota Atlantic class of '04: Ready for prime time

Champ Car and IRL's final showdown

One (half) lap of Road America: Champ Car must stay at the USA's best track

Is Marco Andretti America's next hope?

Open Wheel Racing is in serious need of consolidation

The case for South America

The major leagues of racing is no place for ride-buyers

CART, Driven to where?

Senna: The silence of Imola was heard from here

CART/IRL Split: The 'Evil' split, a Brazilian perspective

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