It’s time to revise our definition of ride-buying

IndyCar commentary — By on February 24, 2010 11:40 am
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

As the IZOD IndyCar Series takes to the track for this week’s test, contracts are being finalized and this season’s field is beginning to take form.

And now, more than ever, the cries of desperation are rising from the stands:  where are all the American drivers?

The short answer is that, right now, IndyCar is expensive and has a lower return on investment relative to other racing series.  IndyCar is working on fixing that, but for the time being, drivers from overseas are doing a better job of showing team owners the money than American drivers are.

Thus, the grumbling begins.  “Damn ride-buyers,” goes the refrain.  “No one wants to watch a bunch of foreigners in what’s supposed to be an American racing series.”

And it’s a fair point.  If you’re marketing a racing series to American viewers, they need American drivers to cheer for.  That’s unquestionable.

However, the term ride-buyer is horribly disparaging, both to the driver in question and the series as a whole.  And these days, it tends to be applied in blanket form to any driver who brings funding to a team as opposed to being hired by a team that’s already secured sponsorship.

This is grossly unfair, and it’s time for us to revise our attitudes.

For clarity, a look back to the early ‘90s will lead us to the original ride-buyer, Hiro Matsushita.  Ah, King Hiro, the moving chicane — in the days when American open-wheel racing was flush with sponsorship (at least by today’s standards), it was nothing short of a farce to watch poor, talentless Hiro play at being a race car driver solely by virtue of having his family’s money to spend while better drivers languished on the sidelines.

And therein lies the true definition of a ride-buyer:  a driver who has no business being on a racetrack but, due to some connection to someone with money, is able to depose more talented drivers and buy his or her way onto the grid.

The obvious modern-day example of this same scenario is Milka.  She’s consistently far off the pace and has no business being on a racetrack.  Some may defend her by saying she generally manages to stay out of trouble, but that hardly makes for thrilling racing, does it?  And yet, she gets to show up thanks to the people at CITGO, who have decided (for reasons impossible to comprehend) that she’s a better marketing tool for them than a driver who’s talented enough to run competitively.

However, this is where the definition of ride-buyer ends.

Justin Wilson, for example, is decidedly not a ride-buyer, despite protests to the contrary.  He has an excellent relationship with a personal sponsor.  Time and again, Justin has clearly demonstrated an exceptional talent, and Z-Line is confident enough in his abilities that they’ve followed him from Coyne to Dreyer & Reinbold for 2010.  This doesn’t make Justin a ride-buyer; this makes him an excellent driver and a savvy self-marketer.  There’s a stark difference.

Alex Tagliani is also not a ride-buyer.  There are people out there who attempt to assert that he is — since he couldn’t find a seat on his own merits, they say, he’s decided to create his own.  That’s ride-buying in a fashion but certainly not a disreputable one.  He’s now personally invested in the success of his entire team.  And provided all goes well, he’s setting himself up to continue his career as an owner once he decides to hang up his boots.  He’s talented, passionate, and he’s investing in the future of the sport — all positive contributions to the series as a whole.

Mario Moraes is… sort of a ride-buyer.  It’s no secret that he shows up with family money, so it’s easy to apply the term on first blush.  But by the end of last season, he was coming into his own and starting to look like he belonged out there.  Given a bit more guidance and a chance to prove himself, it may turn out that he’s actually quite talented.  And — provided he’s contributing to exciting racing and not just getting in the way — perhaps we need to shelve the idea that it matters where the money came from as long as it arrives and the guy gets to do his part in putting on a great show.

So, with this revised definition of what constitutes a ride-buyer, the true question shouldn’t be wondering where all the American drivers are but finding out why they can’t find the same financial support as others have.  There are plenty of American companies backing foreign drivers:  Z-Line, Dad’s Root Beer, MonaVie, and even the National Guard and the Marines supported foreign drivers last year, much to the chagrin of many.

It’s not that the sponsorship dollars aren’t out there.  It’s just that they’re not being given to Americans.

Do American drivers demand too great a salary?  Are they less talented at marketing themselves or the IZOD IndyCar Series?  Are they unwilling to settle for an underdog team that could put them on track for less money?

If IndyCar hopes to capture the attention of the American public again, it needs to recognize that its future depends on finding the answers to these questions.

But in the meantime, let’s be more judicious with our use of the term ride-buyer, start calling a spade a spade, and focus on getting to the root of the problem.

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