“Guys went to little local tracks and started winning and then the owners from the bigger tracks down the road saw then and hired them away and that’s how you graduated,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford.
“You got hired because you had talent and could drive a race car – now you have to walk in with a heavy wallet or a chequebook. It’s sad. It’s evolved from a sport and a competition to a business and I am not sure that the business side of it makes it very attractive.”
Change came to IndyCar about 30 years ago when many aspiring Formula One drivers who didn’t have the cash to buy a ride in Grand Prix racing headed instead to the U.S. to try to make a name for themselves in the cheaper series.
While IndyCar teams spend about $10-million annually per car to race in the series, that price tag is dwarfed by F1’s astronomical costs, which easily top $250-million in a top, two-car team.
Interestingly, Rutherford’s first run in the Indy 500 came in a Watson Roadster powered by an Offenhauser engine that was backed by the City of Victoria. Then again, the sponsorship that team owner Eddie Kostenuk attracted amounted to enough money to buy gas and make the trip to Indianapolis to run the car in the race.
“It was deals like that. They weren’t big deals, but it was bigger than anything else at the time,” said Rutherford, who finished 29th that year after his transmission gave up just 43 laps into the race.
“It’s very different now: All the major teams have people who do nothing but make deals and sell sponsorship. Sponsorship and technology has really screwed up racing. You could win the Indy Lights championship two years in a row, and if you don’t have somebody to pay your way when it comes time to graduate into the big cars, sorry.”
Hinchcliffe’s rookie year in IndyCar serves as a perfect illustration of how much money matters. Although he was at the 2011 season opener wearing a Newman-Haas shirt and already accepted as part of the team, the outfit would not put him into a car until his sponsor cheque from Eric Sprott and Sprott Securities was deposited in its account.
After getting burned a few times by team owners who were more interested in cashing his cheque than keeping promises or fielding a competitive car for him to drive, Hinchcliffe wants others to benefit from his tough lessons.
And that’s why the now-successful IndyCar driver goes out of his way to help young hopefuls understand the ropes so that maybe a few will avoid the pitfalls that marked his rise up the racing ladder.
It’s also about giving youngsters the real goods: Few drivers actually make a living at racing.
“I really try to make them understand Jackie’s point: You do have to be much more of a business person than a racing driver,” he said.
“If you don’t want to work hard off the track for something that is other than driving the race car, just save yourself the time, aggravation and money and get out now. Go buy yourself a tennis racket because this is not the sport for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not, it’s the reality of the sport and you either accept it, embrace it and try to do it, or you get the hell out.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone