As long as I’ve covered IndyCar racing (and this is approaching my seventh decade), I’ve always sided with drivers because they take the risks and usually they get kicked to the curb as fast as they turn in at Indy when owners are done with them.
Don’t get me wrong — car owners are a necessary evil in motorsports and without them there wouldn’t be any racing. Today’s financial pyramid is so inverted it’s amazing we have nine full-timers right now in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Sponsorship is king in IndyCar and has been since the ’80s when prices escalated, ride buyers became the norm and talent was no longer the direct ticket to get a ride.
What’s happened in the past few weeks illustrates the cruel business of being a professional racer and why nobody should ever feel safe.
A former champion, one of the most popular drivers on the circuit and a kid who climbed the ladder of success are all unemployed as we speak.
It appears Sebastian Bourdais got blindsided by Dale Coyne, while James Hinchcliffe was strung along like a Prom Night standby before getting dumped and Spencer Pigot lost out to the realities of IndyCar racing.
The timing sucked for all three, since there’s not much out there to choose from in November and it could be Indy 500-only duty for this trio in 2020.
But let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The Ed Carpenter Racing/Pigot situation was nothing like the other two, at least in terms of professionalism and honesty.
Carpenter went above and beyond to give Spencer a shot despite the fact he brought no money. That’s almost unheard of from a little team like ECR and the 2015 Indy Lights champion was with ECR for three years (the last two full-time) and that’s almost an eternity today.
True, they had a handshake agreement for the No. 21 car in 2020, but it was with the understanding that Ed needed sponsorship and Rinus Veekay delivered with JUMBO Foods. And it won’t be like IndyCar lost an American, because if things go right Conor Daly may be sharing the No. 20 car with the boss.
To his credit, Pigot was all class when he got the word. He thanked Ed because he knew he’d been given a rare opportunity and he also knows how much money it takes to field an Indy car.
Hinch’s drama is a good example of bad PR and a lack of communication.
Even though he had one more year on his contract, The Mayor was thought to be a lame duck when McLaren came aboard to sponsor Arrow SPM in August. I kept saying he wouldn’t be driving for this team in 2020 because that’s all I kept hearing underground. And when Sam Schmidt went public with his guarantee that James would be driving for them next year, my understanding is that he was told to zip it by Arrow.
When they tried to give Hinch’s ride to Oliver Askew for the season finale at Laguna Seca, that’s all the evidence anyone needed.
Being replaced by IndyCar’s future, Pato O’Ward and Askew, is certainly no disgrace but the way it was handled certainly was and it left a bad taste in every Canadian fan’s mouth, as well as embarrassing Hinchcliffe. When you cheat death at Indy because of a faulty suspension part and come back to win the pole the next May, you don’t deserve that kind of farewell.
Ditto for Bourdais. A four-time IndyCar champion who breathed new respect into Coyne’s operation the past three seasons, Seb seemed set for 2020 with engineer Craig Hampson and the final year of his contract. Not sure if SealMaster is out and we heard no more free engines from Honda, but IndyCar’s eternal little guy is back looking for a paid driver for No. 18.
The 40-year-old Frenchman, who overcame a monstrous crash going for quick time at Indy in 2017, was understandably furious with this late kick to the crotch and Marshall Pruett reported last week there was an offer to switch contracts with Hinch and place Seb at Arrow McLaren SP but Coyne refused it.
Unlike the other two veterans, at least Seb already has a good IMSA sports car ride lined up with JDC-Miller Motorsports.
Of course the obvious questions are why bother to have contracts when they’re really not binding and how many owners can be classified as straight shooters? Sam is taking a lot of the heat for Hinch but I don’t think that’s entirely fair because he didn’t re-shuffle the line-up. Unlike Bourdais, at least The Mayor heard the rumblings and Honda of Canada confirmed it had him on its 2020 budget so he had to at least be pondering a Plan B.
But while these pink slips are gutting for the drivers and their followers, they’re more of an indictment of the system than anything else. ECR and Coyne did it to stay in this expensive game, while Arrow McLaren SP didn’t need money but wanted an infusion of youth.
The treatment of Hinch and Seb certainly isn’t anything for those team owners to be proud of but, as clichéd and as callous as it is, the bottom line is that it’s nothing personal – just the ball-busting business of big-time auto racing.