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Ride buying in racing has reached epic proportions
Tony Stewart caused a flap in NASCAR circles last week. He went on his satellite radio program and berated fellow Sprint Cup driver Paul Menard for an incident Charlotte Motor Speedway in which Menard's car collided with Stewart's and caused some damage.

“You can have your father buy your ride . . . but you can't buy talent,” was one of Stewart's many comments aimed at Paul Menard, who's the son of John Menard, a highly successful U.S. Midwest retailer.

While I suspect that the harsh words were more for publicity stunt purposes than anything else, I also think Tony Stewart was sending a message: if overt “ride-buying” is allowed to take place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup division, it will eventually become as dysfunctional as just about every other form of professional car racing in the world.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup is probably the last “pure” form of major-league, professional car racing left, in that teams hire — and pay — drivers to race their cars based primarily on talent. Virtually every other form of pro motorsport - Formula One, Indy cars - is the opposite: most of the drivers pay for the privilege of driving the racing cars.

How nuts is that?

Can anybody imagine the howls that would result if hockey columnist Damien Cox wrote a story for this newspaper that said this:

“Following weeks of negotiations, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke announced today that Phil Kessel has signed a three-year contract worth $10 million to play on the club's first line.

“Kessell will pay the Leafs $5 million to play the first season, $3 million in season two and $2 million in the final year.”

Do you see how ridiculous that is? And yet that is the state of most professional auto racing today.

Take a look at Formula One, the American Le Mans Series, the Grand Am Rolex and on and on. With some exceptions —McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and one or two others — F1 teams are financed by their drivers, either by cash directly or by sponsorship indirectly (the driver arranges it).

In the IZOD IndyCar Series, about two-thirds of the competitors are “pay drivers.” And even the teams that can afford to pay a driver often can't bring themselves to turn down money when it's offered. Paul Tracy was bumped out of his ride at Homestead a few weeks ago when Brazilian driver Ana Beatriz showed up with a big check.

How did it come to this?

Road course car racing has always been a rich man's game. It costs a lot of money to purchase Porsches and BMWs and Ferraris to go road-course racing and so people with means have generally gotten to play.

North American oval track racing, on the other hand, was always a blue-collar sport, even at the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 levels in the pre-pay driver era. The drivers back then, many of whom had other jobs, would be hired for their talent and race for a percentage of the purse.

In the 1970s, well-to-do amateur racers like Ricky von Opel and minor-league professionals like George Eaton started to pay their way into Formula One. The die was cast.

In the 1980s, when CART was formed and started to move Indy car racing away from the ovals and into city streets, road-course racers like Ian Ashley started to pay teams to let them race, which meant the oval-track drivers like Pancho Carter, who had been previously hired for their talent, began to be phased out.

This has been a superficial overview but you get the drift. It started slowly but it's reached the point now where the number of paid drivers in the top racing series in the world are few and far between, as compared to the paying drivers, who make up the majority.

In Europe today, every minor league series (Formula 3, et al) is a pay-and-drive series. There is not one team owner who employs a commercial director to drum up sponsorship in order to give some talented youngster who doesn't have family money or other means an opportunity to showcase his or her abilities.

It's the same in North America. The minor-league NASCAR series (the trucks and the Nationwide stock cars) have many drivers bringing “something to the table,” which is code for money. The vaunted “Road to Indy” program that IndyCar has instituted — USF2000, Star Mazda, Indy Lights — is populated totally by pay drivers. In fact, IndyCar announced a week or so ago that in an effort to give an open-wheel oval-track racer a chance to shine, it was making $300,000 available for one of them to buy six rides.

To repeat: how nuts is that?

IndyCar, among other series, wonders where its audience has gone. Well, the audience isn't stupid. Yes, Dario Franchitti is worth the price of admission, as are Will Power, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy. But after that? As Stewart said, money can't buy talent and there are many people out there racing Indy cars today who shouldn't be.

So why should I pay through the nose to watch the Marlies when I'm expecting the Maple Leafs?

And the next time I hear how hard it is for upcoming car racers to raise sponsorship, I think I'll scream. You can't blame corporations for being wary when pitched for sponsorship. “You want our company to give you $2 million so you can give it to some guy who will let you drive his racing car?”

And anyway, why should that company or corporation get involved in a sport where the talent level is suspect anyway? For the most part, the participants are not the most talented, only the richest.

Earlier, I used the word dysfunctional in connection with car racing. When up is down, front is back and the inmates run the asylum, it's dysfunctional. 'Nuff said.

Tony Stewart saw an opportunity to send a message when he teed off on Paul Menard. I hope that NASCAR heard it, loud and clear.

Norris McDonald writes an auto racing blog at wheels.ca

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