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Humpy Wheeler on racing’s pay driver conundrum (VIDEO)

Jan 8, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

“Pay drivers” in racing are not a new phenomenon, nor are they likely to go away anytime soon. In Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR and sports car, there are drivers all throughout the sport who have made their way to the top solely on their financial backing, or alternatively just used some backing to get started and then have their talent take over from there.

Racing’s not cheap and while this video from former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler doesn’t offer too much in the way of fixing it, it’s still a fairly spot-on assessment of the state of play in most of racing at the moment.

Wheeler has also opined on other YouTube channel posts, such as his ideas for fixing IndyCar.

  1. richardjlewis - Jan 8, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Humpy – You are saying so well the things that we all are thinking about. There are so many talented young drivers who are being lost because they can’t bring in a boatload of money with them. People like Johanna Long and others who have busted their tails on the short tracks and can’t get their foot in the door. They run in the top 20 week in and week out with teams that are racing on a shoestring and pit crews that lose them time on every pit stop. But with guts and mortgaging their lives they continue on.

    On the flip side we have pretend and primadonna drivers who are racing every week at the Sprint Cup level and who are lucky to be top 30 finishers. They have professional shops, virtually unlimited budgets, professional pit crews and can’t even finish a race. They should be embarrassed to even come to the track but they show up and crash.

  2. testover6370 - Jan 8, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    Interesting video. He made some good points but also made some points that I have to take issue with, or at least question. First, while I acknowledge the pay driver issue is more prevalent today than it has been in the past, we can’t put on rose colored glasses and pretend that pay drivers haven’t always existed to some extent in racing. And sometimes pay drivers turn out to be great. Fangio and Lauda were pay drivers, or at least started out that way. DHH has been one of my favorite drivers to watch in Sports Cars. At the same time, I will say you do have a problem when Lotus picks of Maldanado, who is better than most give him credit for, but isn’t nearly as good as Hulkenburg.

    He is absolutely correct in asserting that paying customers, the fans, do have the right to expect to see the best drivers possible in a race. If good drivers are being shut out by mediocre drivers with a bigger check, or worse are wrecked out by a rich kid with no business behind the wheel, that is when pay drivers go from being OK to being a problem.

    I’m not sure about his cost reduction ideas. How do you go back to a time when basic equipment can get the job done? Do you go to a spec series? The fans don’t seem to want to see that, and as Indycar shows that doesn’t really bring the costs down enough to eliminate pay drivers. But if the rulebook is open, then you get an arms race. You may start at a low level, but racers are competitive, and they’ll spend a buck to find time, and if the next guy spends a buck, you’ll spend 2 to outdo him, and so on. That leaves setting a budget cap, and we could write a whole separate entry about the near-impossibility of enforcing those.

    The problem is auto-racing is a mature sport. Most of the low hanging fruit has been picked. The technology has advanced past the point where a very clever person could assemble something together in their own garage and be competitive.

    I hope someone smarter than me can solve the cost question, because lower costs can increase car counts, those cars can be filled with local heroes and great drivers from any background going on talent alone, and those things are what will capture fans’ attention. Until the cost issue can be solved, the industry should do a better job coaching the promising up-and-coming drivers without much support on how to find and secure that financial backing.

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