PRUETT: Contracts vs realities

Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: Contracts vs realities

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Contracts vs realities

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It’s a fabulous time to be a motor racing lawyer.

How many frantic calls were made, in the weeks and months following IndyCar’s September season finale, between drivers and their attorneys? I imagine the questions in October, after James Hinchcliffe was demoted from his race seat at Arrow McLaren SP, went something like, “I know I have a contract with Team X, but does it explicitly state that Team X must put me in a car to drive at every race?”

Just prior to Thanksgiving, another flurry of calls surely were made as the same drivers, and more who had a new reason to be concerned, were shaken as they learned of Sebastien Bourdais’ ouster from Dale Coyne Racing.

Imagine how many hours were invoiced, billed at $500 apiece, by those lawyers as their driver clients rang and posed variations on the same question: “I know Bourdais had a contract to drive in 2020, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him in the car…so can my team do that to me?”

And imagine the helpless feeling when those drivers — even the champions and Indy 500 winners in the field — were told the ugly truth: Despite the services of amazing legal minds who craft iron-clad contracts, when a team owner wants to make a change in the cockpit, well, contracts be damned, it’s going to happen.

The power, as drivers have been reminded with each alarming press release, rests with the men and women who sign their paychecks. There’s no need for the owner of Team X to search for ways to wriggle out of a contract with a driver who’s fallen out of favor, or whose salary has become burdensome. In every instance, the owner’s vast bank account is the winning argument. It’s in the differing financial resources where drivers are destined to lose the employment dispute.

True, some drivers have done an amazing job of saving their salaries, made wise investments and stockpiled millions of dollars for retirement. And in almost every case, they’d be bled dry by legal fees if they elect to sue for lost compensation. When one side has 1000 bullets and the other is starting with 10, the white flag of surrender gets raised before the war begins. For those who choose to fight, prepare to sell the nice house, enroll the kids in public school and say goodbye to that comfortable lifestyle.

In a prolonged court battle with those worth anywhere from tens of millions to billions, a driver’s ammunition runs dry at a startling rate. Still, some have refused to lay down and in the best-case scenarios, once lawyers have been paid and court fees were deducted, they broke even. The only true outlier is found with Ryan Hunter-Reay and the former Rocketsports Champ Car team, where more than a decade was spent in court and, despite receiving a sizable award by the judge, RHR lost a year and a half on the sidelines and bounced around between three teams until finding stability at Andretti Autosport.

After his Rocketsports deal went off the rails, Hunter-Reay fought back and won…but not before a painful career interlude. Image by LAT

Some 12 years after being replaced by a paying driver at Rocketsports, justice was delivered in Hunter-Reay’s favor. Ask him about the brutal span from late 2005 to mid-2007 when he was experiencing the depths of unemployment, and you might get the impression the money that appeared from Rocketsports in 2017 will never erase the emotional toll that came when his contract was ignored.

And that brings us back to the two men whose stories have scared the bejesus out of their fellow drivers. Other than polite words on social media wrapped in the rallying cry of “Challenge Accepted,” Hinchcliffe has gone quiet since his seat evaporated at AMSP.

Hinchcliffe’s situation has a rare twist to consider; with a valid contract, the team has offered to pay his salary which, for those who don’t understand the heart of an athlete, wasn’t received as a happy alternative to driving. Getting paid to watch others race isn’t a positive to a professional driver.

At least on the legal side, Hinchcliffe has imagined the nightmarish scenario and costs involved with fighting the decision in court and reached the conclusion that it would be wiser and easier to search for sponsorship and find a new home in the paddock. As his hunt continues, the kind Canadian has maintained something close to a vow of silence. It’s how the game is played.

Bourdais has followed the same script, using social media to make a single statement that said nothing negative about his former team while declaring his intent to continue in IndyCar.

Bourdais: Silence from the sidelines. Image by LAT

Drivers have two realistic avenues to pursue when a Hinchcliffe- or Bourdais-like situation presents itself, and only one will work in their favor. There’s the nuclear option with trying to get one’s job back through blackmail, which involves chronicling all of the misdeeds, lies, and bad behavior they’ve endured, and threatening to expose the team owner through the media. Bringing shame and embarrassment to a team owner, and the team’s sponsors, by going public might sound like a sharp tactic to consider, but it’s a career killer.

Whatever sympathy might be curried among fans would pale in comparison to the reaction from the rest of the team owners, who’d have to wonder if they’d be on the receiving end of the same public humiliation if things went sour with the driver in question. Forget whether a driver has the right to reveal all the ways they’ve been wronged by a team owner; do it once, and you become a threat.

The second option, which has been taken many times, involves being muzzled for money. Air your grievances to the world, and you won’t receive a penny of what you’re owed. Keep your mouth shut, stay off of social media, and you might be able to negotiate a 50-percent buyout.

Facing the need to pay mortgages, private schools, support parents or siblings and cover all the other monthly drains on a savings account, most drivers bend the knee and take whatever settlement they can get. The uncomfortable dance is the best outcome most drivers can hope for when they find themselves with a contract in hand and someone else’s name on the car they were meant to race.

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