The RACER Mailbag, January 12

The RACER Mailbag, January 12

Insights & Analysis

The RACER Mailbag, January 12

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Q: I recently located a memory card that I used at the 2016 Formula 1 race in Austin. After searching through images for quite some time, I came this photo (below) I took from the general admission area in the Esses. It shows the drivers being taken around the circuit so the fans can see all of them. You will note that Lewis Hamilton is sitting down all by himself while wearing headphones and holding his phone. 

Later in the ride, Will Buxton was able to corner Lewis and inquired as to why he wasn’t with his teammate and the other drivers and texting. Lewis stated that he was communicating with his fans. Must have forgotten about the fans at COTA that paid dearly to see him.

I have nothing against Lewis, and he is entitled to do what he wants, but his action(s) that day made me wonder if he thinks he is too important to take part in such events at the track.

Pat Rizk, The Woodlands, Texas

MP: Had a similar situation back in 1988 at the CART IndyCar Series race on the Phoenix oval, Pat. I was there working as a 17-year-old crew member on a SCCA Super Vee team and wanted nothing more than to get Mario Andretti’s autograph if the opportunity presented itself. Our last Super Vee session was over before the last IndyCar session on that Friday, and with my 1987 “Autocourse” book in hand, I wandered up to pit lane, stepped over the wall, and waited behind Mario’s rear wing as he spoke to his engineer.

Pit lane was almost empty of people and cars at the point, so it was pretty much me standing and looking at Mario and Tony Cicale (I think) who were standing in front of the car. I mention this part because there were no other distractions besides me, and with my book and a Sharpie in plain sight, it was clear why I was there. I swear they stood and spoke for 30 minutes, with the odd glance in my direction from Mario, who never acknowledged me.

Total hero worship on my part, but as the minutes wore on, I felt completely invisible and insignificant. Who knows, it might have only been 10 or 15 minutes, but it felt like an eternity of waiting. Finally, as their debrief was nearing its end, Mario – without looking my way – motioned me over with a free hand, took the pen, signed the book, and did so without breaking eye contact with Cicale.

Want to know who went from a hero to someone I semi-loathed for years afterwards? All because I felt he didn’t place my needs and desires ahead of his own while he was at work. That’s the context I was lacking, and since I was 17 and immature, I failed to grasp that Mario was indeed focusing on the most important part of his job. It wasn’t self-importance. It was him doing what he was hired to do. Another thing I quickly learned, which remains true today, is drivers, team owners, mechanics, etc., don’t do their jobs to entertain us.

The interviews, the autograph signings, the riding around on trailers or in the back of trucks before a race, appearing on podcasts, and so on, are all cool byproducts of the job, but none come before the core tenets of being prepared to race and win. I understand the “but we pay their salaries by buying their sponsor’s products” angle, and while there’s an element of truth to that, it took me a while to realize Mario (and maybe Lewis in this case) wasn’t there for us.

They include us in their world when they aren’t focusing on racing, but there was no reason for me to hold a grudge against Mario for making me wait. And if Lewis, on that day or any other day, wasn’t in the mood to stand and wave, I can see how that could be aggravating. I also know how silly I felt after realizing I was using one encounter with Mario to cast him in a negative and long-lasting light.

When you consider that Hamilton went on to win the 2016 USGP by 4.5s, you’d have to say he had his pre-race routine pretty well dialed in.

Q: A while back you wrote about driver salaries and l noticed you also referenced the Formula E circuit as being a lucrative one. Can you elaborate on what average salaries are for Formula E?

Danny Bridges, Indianapolis 

MP: Wish I had insights for you, other than sharing how whenever I’ve spoken with someone who fielded an IndyCar inquiry from a Formula E driver or their manager, or chatted with drivers who competed in Formula E and have gone on to other series, they all mention how the salaries are so high compared to what most IndyCar teams are willing to offer, they’d be crazy to leave Formula E.

Q: I, as well as many other readers, really enjoyed the inside look at the tiers of drivers’ salaries. So, this brings me to ask (what I’ve wondered for a long time): Do you know, and can you reveal, how Paul Newman got his rides? I pretty much assume that Le Mans came via a hefty payment from P.L.N. to get on the roster. But all the SCCA years, did he have to pay his way into them, too? God knows he had enough money to support the upkeep of his machinery… so, was it all on his dime?

Ken Fischer, Tucson
Team Panoz physio at 2001 Le Mans, for Brabs and Mags, Klaus Graff, etc.

MP: I recall select situations where Paul was invited to drive, but most involved paying for the cars, team, or both to operate and provide something for him to race. Keep in mind that at the amateur (or even pro) SCCA levels, these are small business owners to make their living by running paying customers, and despite Paul’s stardom, those owners can’t pay their bills by giving freebies away to people who can afford to pay the bill.

At one racing team/prep shop I worked at where we were all assigned to run various clients in their open-wheel cars or the ones our team owned, we had a few “don’t ask where their money comes from” types that were regular customers. Some grew things that, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, would have drawn the interest of the DEA. One would bring us mason jars with the moonshine they made and sold, and there were a few others who were deep into the financial/investment world who never spoke about their dealings. One went on a race car buying spree and snapped up a dream collection of recent F1 and Le Mans cars that would break a bank these days, and it was pocket change for them.

I share all this because whether it was forking over a nominal sum to test a Swift DB-6 FF2000 or something else, they all paid by check or credit card… even when some might have wanted to pay with the products they grew or distilled… because even at the highest levels of racing, most teams are businesses in need of cash to cover their monthly expenses.