PRUETT: If NBA players sponsored race teams

PRUETT: If NBA players sponsored race teams

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: If NBA players sponsored race teams


Above: The NBA’s Tony Parker visited with Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean at Monaco, but he and his fellow players could do a lot more if they chose. 

Jon Leuer could fund a single-car Verizon IndyCar Series program and an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype effort with the salary he’ll earn next season as a backup power forward for the Detroit Pistons.

Despite being a lifelong basketball fan and avid follower of the NBA, I still had to look up and confirm Leuer was real when I read about his new contract. Considering his relative anonymity and limited production, 27-year-old Leuer just inked a $42 million extension with the Pistons to come off the bench for four more years. That contract was earned off a solid 2015-’16 campaign with the Pistons that saw Leuer’s career stats rise to averaging 13.7 minutes and 5.6 points per game. Think about that for a moment.

Little-known backup players are now pocketing small fortunes, and a few free agent stars are also set to break the bank thanks to an adjustment to NBA cap room, and an influx in new TV money. It has taken a player like Leuer, who earned just over $1 million last season, and turned him into someone who’ll pocket slightly over $10 million once the 2016-’17 season begins in a few months.

There’s no reason to get upset at Leuer; he’s 6-foot-10, can dunk, and plays in a sport that is flush with cash. Even with his unremarkable career stats, the new $42 million contract is simply a byproduct of market trends and his team’s willingness to spend a vast amount on a solid bench player.

Granted, it must make most professional open-wheel and sportscar drivers bristle at the thought of risking their lives for well under $1 million a year. As sad as it is, it’s a reminder of how a backup NBA player – even on the third-best team in its conference — can take home more in a year than the majority of pro racers will receive in a lifetime.

With the scarcity of sponsorship in North American road racing, it got me wondering how some of the other big money NBA contracts announced in the past week would translate into annual IndyCar and IMSA budgets. Taking that giant salary and applying it to a major racing series could support a pro driver and a dozen or more crew members for a year in the big leagues, and in the smaller categories, the buying power contained within a monster NBA contract is simply staggering.

Although the cost for a season of competition with a single car varies from team to team, let’s work from some solid averages for our NBA-to-Racing conversions:

IndyCar: $6 million.

IMSA Prototype: $4 million.

IMSA GT Daytona: $2.5 million.

IMSA PC: $1.2 million.

Indy Lights: $1.1 million.

Pro Mazda: $500,000.

USF2000: $275,000.

(Budgets for factory-backed IMSA GT Le Mans teams are kept private).

So if a Jon Leuer can turn his $10.5 million annual salary into $6 million IndyCar and $4 million IMSA Prototype programs for a season and have $500,000 leftover, what could some of the other NBA players afford?

Toronto Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo, who put up 5.5 points and pulled down 8.0 rebounds per game last season, was lured to the Orlando Magic for four years and $70 million. With his $17.5 million annual salary, the native of Zaire could field a two-car IndyCar program ($12M), a two-car Indy Lights effort ($2.2M), two Pro Mazdas ($1M), two USF2000s ($550K), and put the remaining $1.75 million in his savings account.

Trevor Booker left the Utah Jazz for the Brooklyn Nets for a two-year deal worth $18 million. Booker’s $9 million salary, which was offered after giving the Jazz an average of 5.9 points and 5.7 rebounds last season, would allow the South Carolinian to become a personal stimulus package for IMSA’s PC class.

With only seven PC cars taking the start last weekend at Watkins Glen, Booker could double the class size by adding seven more PCs ($8.4M) and have $600,000 sitting at ORECA to cover the repair bills.

We’ve covered three journeymen so far, so let’s up the ante and add an NBA all-star to the mix.

The Atlanta Hawks lost center/swingman Al Horford to the Boston Celtics, who locked up his 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game with a four-year $113 million contract. Horford’s max deal, which pays out just over $28 million per season, would make him an instant motor racing tycoon.

Depending on how he wanted to slice it, the Dominican Republic native could go the route of a Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi by entering four Indy cars ($24M) and have $4m free to play with each year. IMSA’s Prototype class has averaged eight cars at most rounds in 2016; Horford could go all-in and drop seven more Prototypes on the grid with his $28m.

If Horford was feeling something more GT than open-wheel or prototype, he could fund 11 cars ($27.5M) and take IMSA’s GTD class to almost 25 cars per round. And if he was looking at monopolies, Horford could opt to commit his entire $113 contract to put 18 Indy cars on track for one year. It would be the dumbest move ever made, but if Big Al had the desire, it could be done.

Let’s close on my favorite new contract. Kevin Durant will sign a two-year, $54.3 million contract to play for my Golden State Warriors, where he’s expected to form one of the deadliest scoring trios the NBA has ever seen. Although he’ll earn slightly less than Horford, his 28.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game are well worth the expense, and if we assume the product of Washington, D.C. is a fan of open-wheel racing, and especially the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, the $27 million or so he’ll land next season could do incredible things.

The MRTI’s Pro Mazda series has endured small grids while waiting for a new chassis to arrive, and with 10 cars on most grids, Durant could pay for 54 Pro Mazdas ($27M) to flood the championship and fix the problem.

Indy Lights has seen a steady increase in car counts since the new Dallara IL15-Mazda debuted last year. 16 cars have been found for most rounds, and with his annual salary, Durant could put 24 more into action ($26.4M) and use the rest as a graduation prize for the champion.

And then there’s USF2000, which had a healthy grid of 24 cars for its most recent race at Road America. How does Durant’s $27 million translate at the USF2000 level? 98 cars per season.

Following the old adage of, “What’s the best way to make a small fortune in racing?…start with a big one,” maybe it’s best for the Durants, Biyombos, and Leuers to stick with basketball.

MX-5 Cup | Round 1 – Daytona | Race Highlights