The disease that is killing open wheel racing worldwide
I’m not going to go quite that far. But the phenomenon we call “ride buying,” where drivers, sometimes talented other times not, leverage sponsorship or some other kind of financial backing as a means of securing seats at the top-level, is certainly an unsavory one. After all, the notion, whether true or not, that a competitor in a top-level sport is there because he or she has better financial backing than another competitor, isn't exactly congruous with whatever romantic notions we hold about the purity of sport. For example, could you imagine the shortstop for the New York Yankees, being the shortstop because he is connected somehow a major financial backer, who is willing to sponsor the left-field wall?
Now, racing is different than traditional sick-and-ball sports, in that, the driver is one component of an overall package. And there is great expense to running exotic machines at high speeds, transporting those machines, servicing said machines, and all that accompanies running a race team. It is here, where a practice many passionately decry against, becomes incredibly complicated and subjective.
Below, we will take a look at the phenomenon of ride buying, starting with the drivers, before moving on to the role of teams, and sanctioning groups. While we will specifically focus on IndyCar, this is not a matter exclusive to IndyCar, as Formula One deals with the phenomenon, albeit on a much grander scale. In fact, one could argue that ride buying in IndyCar is a function of the sport's limited commercial value, whereas in F1 it is a function of the sport's immense commercial value but huge operations cost. But that is a different discussion for a different day.
Now, let me be clear that someone who brings sponsorship to a team is not necessarily lacking in talent. There are plenty of examples of drivers, who got their start, in part with the benefit of strong financial support. While many try to simplify the practice by making things black and white, this is a subject with numerous shades of gray. In fact, one could argue that a drivers ability to attract some sort of backing is well, a talent, in and of itself that is very much a part of being a professional racing car drivers.
That said, the practice of hiring drivers because of their funding is not a healthy one for the sport, as it lessens the premium on performance. And the top-level of any sport should be the top-level because it boasts the best collection of talent.
So, who’s at fault? Is it the drivers, who parlay deep pockets into rides at the top-level at the expense of more talented, if not as well-funded, racers? Is it the teams? Or are sanctioning bodies to blame?
Using a question/answer format, we will explore these questions and more concerning the phenomenon we know as ride buying.
Don’t hate the players.
Overwhelmingly, any anger fans and media have regarding the practice of ride buying tends to be directed at drivers. And let’s face it: Insert driver name here has signed to drive for insert team name here because his or her daddy is really rich doesn’t exactly appeal to our sense of fairness. Still, directing negative sentiment towards the drivers shows a great level of misunderstanding.
Although they have much cooler jobs and often enjoy the accompanying perks of said profession, at the end of the day, drivers are simply people like you and I seeking to advance in their chosen field. If any of us wanted to advance in our chosen field, we would utilize all the contacts and resources at our disposal to do just that.
Drivers, who leverage strong financial backing into seats at the top-level, are simply doing what any of us would. Channeling our discontent in their direction, while incredibly common, is very misguided.
Fair enough. But since we still hate the game, who should receive our scorn? The greedy team owners who are too lazy to get off their behinds and hire real drivers?
Maybe. But there is context to consider here.
Although, no one will necessarily say this, the simple reality is not every team is Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. Not every team is in a position to compete regularly for championships and Indy 500 wins. For some teams the goals are much more modest, such as keeping people employed and making sure the shop doors stay open.
Now, say you are one of those teams simply trying to stay in business and two drivers seat approach you about an open seat. One driver, say Sebastien Bourdais, who has an impressive resume but brings no sponsorship wants $500,000 to drive. The other driver, say James Jakes, a decent driver but not on the level of Bourdais has $5 million dollars in backing that is attached to him and him alone.
Keeping in mind this is a hypothetical scenario, the monetary difference between Jakes and Bourdais is $5.5 million in favor of Jakes. Sure, the team could go out and sell sponsorship around Bourdais, but $5.5 million is a lot to sell. And selling sponsorship can also be a giant drain on a team's resources.
If you’re an owner with bills to pay, and a shop you want to keep open, this is simple: you’re taking the Jakes deal and not thinking twice.
But isn't this lazy on the team's part? Also, don't drivers like Bourdais improve the value of the team?
In the long-term, it is reasonable to assume that a driver such as Bourdais would raise the profile of the team and thus its ability to attract sponsorship as he has the ability to contend for race wins and championships.
But none of that changes the fact Bourdais has set the team back $5.5 million relative to Jakes. And keep this in mind: no matter how well Bourdais performs on track, he is not making that money back up. Because....
The current prize system does not place a significant premium on performance.
Let's use Bourdais and Jakes in another hypothetical scenario, this time with 19-race 2013 schedule as our reference. Say Bourdais were to win every race including the Indianapolis 500, every pole position, and the series championship. Under that scenario Bourdais would earn just over $4.1 million in prize money with the championship prize money, Indy 500 prize money, pole position awards, and race purse awards.
Or stated another way, if Bourdais won absolutely everything there were to win, he’d still be $1.4 million behind Jakes in monetary value to a team.
Now, if you take what both Bourdais and Jakes actually earned in 2013, the results become more clear.
Jakes earned $262,555 in prize money in 2013 ($227,555 at Indy + $35,000 for finishing second at Detroit as a non-Leaders Circle entry). Bourdais earned $327,805 ($262,805 at Indy, $65,000 for two third-place finishes and one second), $65,255 more than Jakes. Both qualified their team entries for the Leaders Circle.
While I can rehash numbers all day, and you can debate whatever justice there is here or not, the point is very simple: in pure monetary terms, Jakes has way more value to a team than Bourdais. And it’s not even close.
Quickly explaining the Leaders Circle:
I'm going to assume most readers have a general idea of how the IndyCar Leaders Circle program works. But to briefly explain, in 2013 $1 million was awarded to the top- 22 in entrant points from 2012. Essentially, the Leaders Circle essentially awards those teams that show up on a week-to-week basis, guaranteeing full fields for promoters.
But the Leaders Circle does not encourage teams to go out and hire the best drivers. The Leaders Circle encourages teams to do what is necessary to stay in the Leaders Circle. And staying in the Leaders Circle basically means showing up week-to-week, which can be accomplished with a competent, if not outstanding, driver.
And keep in mind, many drivers of lesser talent than Bourdais have qualified their teams for the Leaders Circle program.
With the Leaders' Circle structured as is, one could one argue it is somewhat surprising more teams don't hire "pay" drivers?
While that is somewhat counter-intuitive logic, and would not make for a popular column, I agree such an argument could be made.
Overall, it seems IndyCar does not place enough of a premium on performance.
A reasonable argument could be made supporting that statement. In fact, the Boston Consulting Group report proposed IndyCar raising its race-to-race purses.
Now, it should be noted that IndyCar has established a fund in recent years allowing the Indy Lights champion to move to IndyCar. Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier have benefited from this the past two seasons, while Sage Karam looks poised to move to the big cars in 2014. This particular program has incentivized success, and IndyCar should be credited for that.
As for the Leaders Circle, it has been successful too--in insuring full fields for IndyCar. But the Leaders Circle, as currently constituted rewards "showing up," not performance. While that is good from a certain perspective, the model will need to be improved if the sport is going to reach its fullest potential.
Generally speaking, you seem to have something of a cold, neutral opinion regarding the practice of ride buying.
With regard to the teams, I have "no skin in the game,” as Dan Gurney would say. In terms of IndyCar, I could very easily make a connection between their management of the sport and the diminished commercial viability of the series, resorting in teams being forced to hire pay drivers.
Still, that doesn't reconcile the fact the practice has always been around and probably will never go away. After all, Formula One is wildly successful, yet the prevalence of pay drivers is not significantly better or worse than IndyCar.
But I will say this.
The last 11 IndyCar Series championships have been won by three teams: Ganassi, Penske, and Andretti Autosport (previously Andretti Green Racing). Also, remember Ganassi and Penske won all six CART titles from 1996-2001.
What do all three of those teams have in common? They have consistently secured the necessary funding to allow themselves to go out and hire the best drivers available. That funding has allowed them to properly build teams around those drivers with the right people in place. One such example, would be Ganassi Team Principal Mike Hull, who has been a fixture with the team, and on Scott Dixon’s radio since Dixon joined the team.
In short, you can make up the numbers, compete and even score the occasional win, relying on the pay-driver model. But to have a championship-caliber team, the data overwhelmingly affirms the ability to hire drivers is essential.
That said, ride buying isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. So long as teams want to keep their shops open, and drivers are looking to get any edge to climb the ladder, the practice will be in place. Sure, it is incumbent upon sanctioning bodies need to make their series viable to the point that teams are encouraged to acquire more talented drivers.
In the case of IndyCar, AR1.com has made a strong case of why the series should move all their races to ABC immediately so that teams can use the higher TV ratings to see sponsorship and then go out and hire the best drivers based on merit. IndyCar has yet to do that, hence unprofessional ride-buying continues, sponsors are jumping ship and the sport remains in a downward spiral.
At the end of the day, ride buying is essentially a less-than-ideal reality. And the sooner followers of the sport realize that, the better.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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