One way or another, everyone buys their ride. It is a universal truth. The exceptions are so few and far between as to be irrelevant.
This applies to Indycar, NASCAR and Formula 1. It applies to your local quarter-mile dirt track. It applies to the 24 Hours of Lemons and ALMS and everything in between.
If you are an aspiring racecar driver, get this through your head – if you don’t bring something besides your driving talent to the table, you won’t be in this business very long. That’s not immoral. That’s just the way it is.
I openly confess that my Super Cup ride was predicated on several business deals. My ARCA Truck ride was strung together by an arrangement involving four different companies. Without those deals I'd have lost my seat overnight.
Was offered a ride with an ALMS team a few weeks ago (the ultimate ride-buyers club)… same thing. I also tested with a Rolex team. Did fine with the car, but that’s not why I was there. I was there because I had interest from an oil company who was looking at the series as an advertising outlet. When that deal fell apart, so did the ride. Going fast didn’t help.
It’s not just me. It’s everybody at every level. I knew Joey Logano before he got his first development contract. His family funded his racing. His dad joked about how happy he was when Joey got into Cup because some money was finally coming in instead of going out.
Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan get paid now, but their early competitors knew them as the “Brazillionaires” for a reason. I used to run into Jeff Gordon at Bloomington Speedway back in the day. Jeff’s step-dad cut a smart deal with Pepsi. We showed up to race in an International pickup and an open trailer. Jeff arrived in an 18-wheeler. That money took him through USAC and into NASCAR.
Former Indycar driver Dennis Vitolo raised money with a second mortgage and credit cards. Scott Pruett took his life savings ($70,000) and bought an Indycar ride with Dick Simon. Now before you get all misty, ask yourself this – what 26-year-old kid has 70 grand in his life savings? Chew on that for a minute.
Now look at the middle levels of the sport. NASCAR short track and ProCup ace Jay Fogleman owns a construction company. Super Cup driver Jamie Vaughn worked in the West Virginia coal mines to save up enough money to buy his seat. Brandon Huff of ARCA Trucks owns his own team with his father. Precious few of us actually get paid to drive someone else's car. I'm one of the lucky ones and for that I'm eternally grateful, but without behind-the-scenes business deals my rides would come unglued, too.
Look at the entry levels of the sport. Anyone can buy a Lemons ride for about $600. Most local dirt track drivers fund their own teams.
The list is endless and I’m not knocking the people on it. I’m simply dispelling a ridiculous myth that should have been shot down long ago.
For years people have whined that former driver Marty Roth “bought his way into Indycar,” while assuming that Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello somehow has Divine approval for his career. Hogwash. Barrichello couldn’t get the time of day until a Brazilian construction company bought his Indycar seat for him.
You are sure to run across those who will argue this to the death and instantly spout a laundry list of drivers that they “know for a fact” never brought a dime of anyone’s money to their rides.
98% of the time they don’t realize that there was money changing hands behind the scenes or a family business connection within the team that supported the deal. The other 2% may have actually occurred but the instances are so rare that the greater point still stands.
Look, getting into auto racing is really simple. You only have to do two things:
1. Find the money to buy the seat.
2. If 24 cars start the race… qualify faster than the 25th guy.
Being the best driver rarely helps. A 20th place driver with money will get the ride over a 3rd place driver without it. Other than – maybe – the top 6 rides in a handful of the world's elite race series, there are no exceptions. And even those guys got there because they had money to begin with.
Still, this is a massive improvement over the early days of racing when only the uber-rich could participate. At least now the middle classes can participate by using someone else’s money, and sometimes even get paid to do so. The sport is open to more people today than at any time in the history of the automobile.
Ride “buying” is not an obscenity. And yes, there’s a 98% chance that your favorite driver is a ride-buyer, too, so don’t go all high-and-mighty on me. Sometimes they buy it with their own money, sometimes with someone else’s. But everyone buys. And if someone else shows up with more money, they’re gone. The ones who deny it are lying.
This is not new. It happened thirty years ago when on one was paying attention.
Get used to it. We’re all ride-buyers now.
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Boschett Timepieces ARCA Truck
Co-host, Mecum Auto Auctions