Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-based company at: hpd.honda.com and on social media at @HondaRacing_HPD and https://www.facebook.com/HondaRacingHPD.
Your questions for Robin should be sent to email@example.com. We cannot guarantee we’ll publish all your questions and answers, but Robin will reply to you. And if you have a question about the technology side of racing, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here.
Q: I just read Marshall Pruett’s column in which he had one false statement and one true one. First, the false statement: “Without a powerful union to provide protection, drivers are left to choose between risking financial peril or accepting a token buyout that comes with a big piece of tape across their mouths.”
I am not an attorney, but have reached agreements in enough contracts to know that you can put all the uncertainties about actually driving instead of just getting paid, gag orders, legal fees for the winning party, buyout figures in the contract. I am always aggravated about pro athletes who whimper about getting cut or traded to a less desirable city, when all they had to do was negotiate a no-cut or no-trade clause in return for a lower salary. Make the hard choices, then live with it. You don’t need a union to help you read your contract. If you don’t like the “token buyout” clause, don’t sign the contract.
Now the (probably) true one. “It could be nothing more than a coincidence, but Hinchcliffe and Bourdais, the two who’ve pushed the hardest throughout the 2010s for the proper treatment of drivers and improvements in driver safety, are now on the outside looking in.”
That was the first thing that came to my mind after Hinch got replaced. No employers want potential complaining or lawsuit-happy or union-organizer employees, and it looks like Hinch outed himself as such a potential employee. But note, McLaren SP seems to be honoring the letter of its contract. I imagine Dale Coyne’s actions on Bourdais, as unpleasant as they may be for Seb, are also not in violation of his contract.
One other thing. When DCR was a backmarker team and an upcoming driver wanted out of his contract to race for big money with a front-running team, wasn’t Dale always gracious about saying he would not stand in the way of the young man’s opportunity to further his career?
Marwood Stout, Camarillo, CA
RM: Well, the nice thing about the Mailbag is that everyone gets to voice his or her opinion, but I will respectfully disagree with your premise that Marshall made a false statement. Race drivers don’t have a union or a player’s rep or a pension, and as we’ve seen through the years, they don’t have much leverage, either. It’s a hard-ass business that swings on sponsorships, and drivers, no matter how good their track record – like Bourdais – are disposable. If they get axed and play along without making any negative comments, like MP suggested, then maybe they’ll get some or all of their salary. I asked an Indy winner if drivers had buyouts in their contracts, and he laughed. “No such thing,” he replied.
It appears that Arrow McLaren SP is going to pay Hinch his full salary but is it contingent on him not driving for anyone else in 2020? Not sure. But he wasn’t replaced because he spoke up about drivers getting organized – he was replaced by a couple of young talents that likely cost less combined than The Mayor was making. The bottom line is that a driver doesn’t have many options when he gets a pink slip, even with a contract. You’re not going to sue the owner, you’re just going to play nice and hopefully get a settlement. But a race driver’s contract means nothing compared to a stick and ball athlete.
Q: I just finished Marshall Pruett’s article and several thoughts came to mind – first and foremost, what is a contract? I’m old enough to remember when a driver got fired out of his ride by an owner at the track the day of the race. Those days, if a guy didn’t produce, he was gone. Period. Don’t want to run Salem? Scared? Hell, Jimmy over there will, he ain’t scared. Chris Economaki, legendary editor of National Speed Sport News, subscribed to the theory that race drivers always raced their best when they were young and hungry. No wives or children to worry about if he got mangled or “kilt” in a race. With very few exceptions, I feel he was right.
This leads to there we are now with drivers and contracts. As a car owner writing the checks, do you continue to pay a guy who last year was running top five and now can’t get to the top 15, and you are spending the same amount of money? On top of this, his manager just talked you into a three-year contract for a guy you are now seeing as off his game, or too comfortable. Racing is about winning. Even though there are points for second place, if you want to survive as a paid race driver, you have to perform. The fact that you won the last race, the last championship, have five million followers on social media means nothing when you line up for the next race. How long a losing driver keeps his seat depends strictly on the guy writing the checks. Always has been in racing.
Like it or not, drivers are commodities like potatoes and soy beans. Unlike those items, drivers have personalities, and whether we like potatoes or not, we do tend to like drivers. They are brave, skillful, do all kinds of stuff we can’t even think about doing, but in the end, if they can’t deliver the wins, they are gone, contract or not. This, of course, leads to all sorts of ramifications for the car owner, the driver, the racing series, that are definitely not all positive, especially in the challenging economies of current IndyCar racing. However, in the end, if your guy is running last, you are going to get a new guy. If your new guy starts running up front, maybe win a race, well, you will soon forget about that other guy.
Today in IndyCar we are fortunate we have owners who are committed and are willing to put their resources into a great racing series. That they choose to get a new hot shoe, I say God bless them. Sucks for those that lost their rides, but it’s not a union job. Your take?
RM: Nobody is suggesting car owners don’t have the right to upgrade or make changes, the rub here was how these two veterans were treated. Being blindsided sucks at any job, let alone one that puts your life at risk, and just getting a heads-up back in the summer that their rides might be in jeopardy would have been the kind of professional treatment they deserved. And maybe Coyne didn’t find out until a couple of months ago, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Seb to swallow.
We all knew Hinch was a lame duck, but he was assured by Sam (in print) that his drive was alive for 2020. And your comparisons to the old days doesn’t really fly here. Only a few drivers ever got salaries in the ’60s, when there were open seats every weekend and running for 40 percent was a decent living. IndyCar is fortunate to have Michael Andretti, Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, Bobby Rahal, Ed Carpenter, Dale Coyne, Mike Shank, Ricardo Juncos, Trevor Carlin and Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. fielding cars, and they are always looking for upcoming talents or sponsors, but not necessarily in that order. That’s the reality of today’s expensive game.