There's a phrase used all the time in racing that people use to explain unpopular decisions. I'm sure you've heard it once or twice.
"It's just business."
Never mind that that phrase is as satisfying as a bout of constipation - it's still the truth. A lot of aggravating, annoying, devastating, and downright stupid stuff can be explained away by the fact that "it's just business."
Because professional auto racing is a business. It may be a way of life for the drivers, it may be a religion for the fans, but it is neither of these in reality. So those times when we rely on paradigms about whether someone "deserves" something or not are often based on a willful misinterpretation of the sport's nature. The only justice that is served is towards the bottom line.
There is a lot of unpleasantness to be had in racing because of that sometimes harsh truth. Lindy Thackston, an absolute gem of a person - telegenic, photogenic, smart, funny, capable - was not hired to return to IndyCar broadcasts this year. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing went out and signed the hottest rookie driver in American open-wheel racing, got a sponsor for a full season, and was ready to take on the world - except that there is no motor in the team's brand new Dallara DW12, nor is there likely to be until Indianapolis at the earliest. Fan favorite Pippa Mann continues her prodigious and enthusiastic engagement on social media, yet she does not have a ride for 2012. Michael Shank Racing, a team which beat the best in Grand American sports car racing at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, may end up missing the 2012 IndyCar season if they cannot get either the funding, the driver, or the engine package sorted in time.
Why is this? Well, if you want to ignore the maxim introduced at the start of this post, there are a multitude of culprits available to blame. I won't go into them all here, but I will mention that one common mantra that seems to keep surfacing is that INDYCAR hasn't done enough to make these deals happen. Whatever else might be the causative agents for these calamities, it appears to be agreed that the sanction hasn't wielded its financial and political might to "lubricate the hinges," so to speak.
If I'm being honest, that attitude kind of pisses me off.
It's not that I have any particular love or loyalty for INDYCAR. I find the people who work there charming and personable, but I historically haven't let that fact impede me from offering criticisms - always attempting to be objective about it, but oftentimes levying some very harsh assessments of their performance. But in this case, I want to ask the question - exactly how much welfare should INDYCAR be responsible for before things get out of control?
That's right, I said "welfare." As in a subjectively-based system that provides materials, financing, and other assets based on an ephemeral sense of need or an intangible set of advantages which begs the circumvention of the natural course of business.
It's clear that INDYCAR's competitors and fans expect a bit of welfare to be doled out, largely because the precedent was set from the very founding days of the Indy Racing League (remember 25/8?). And once you have established that you are willing to give out something that is normally earned, whether for free or for a deep discount, it is unbelievably hard to wean the recipients off of the dole. People get used to the helping hand and, in fact, end up budgeting it into their decision-making by default after a while.
Take, for example, the recent brouhaha involving the Leader's Circle money. Randy Bernard, INDYCAR CEO, decided to reevaluate what constitutes merit for these Leader's Circle bonuses when Newman-Haas Racing could not answer the bell in 2012. He elected to disburse Newman-Haas' unused Leader's Circle payouts to the teams which offered the most compelling presentation about how they would activate their participation in the sport to bring in new fans, new sponsors, and new interest.
The Oklahoma land rush that followed included small fries like Michael Shank and big fish such as Chip Ganassi. But the two teams who walked away from the meeting were Ed Carpenter Racing and Dragon Racing. Hunh? How could the Indianapolis 500-winning team be left out in the cold? How could a team like Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, who provides one of the most compelling storylines in racing with diabetic Charlie Kimball and is a champion at sponsor activation, be passed over?
The answer was actually quite simple - Bernard and company had a set of criteria that they employed to judge the presentations without regard to prestige or entitlement - but by now you know that the simple answer is not the one people like to hear. Bryan Herta in particular was reportedly furious at being denied the Leader's Circle money - not because he needed it to get on track, but because he stated that being part of the Leader's Circle plan meant (to him, at least) that his team was one of the 20 most important teams in INDYCAR.
That sort of subjective thinking gets people into trouble in business, particularly in the racing business. People can kvetch all they want about the hoops that you're required to jump through ("You mean this money is contingent on a glorified PowerPoint presentation???"), but you still have to jump through them to get the carrot.
That's not to say that there shouldn't be sympathy for those affected by business realities. I am as furious as anyone that people I consider to be, if not friends, then people with whom I wish I were friends, are facing struggles on the business side of racing. I will gladly roll out the #THACKONTRACK and #engineforsarah hashtags on Twitter; I will do my best to keep Pippa Mann's name trending with the resources I have; I will cross every finger and toe that I possess in the hopes that Michael Shank answers the bell at St. Petersburg.
But if none of that stuff works out the way I want, I am not going to call it a "travesty" or an "injustice" or a "catastrophe," even if that's how I feel. I have spent nearly two decades on the business side of racing and have learned that feelings are far too easily hurt or trampled, and that sometimes things won't work out practically even if I think it's a slam dunk subjectively.
There was the time that one of my clients was hired by one of the sport's biggest teams on a substitute basis, drove his ass off and made headlines doing it, and in the end was still replaced by a driver whose agent had a friendly (and profitable) relationship with the team owner. Then there was the rising young star whose family mortgaged a significant chunk of their personal money and years' worth of careful planning to send him up the racing ladder. But even though he won a nationally-televised race and seemed destined for a stellar career, his family-owned team was bought out, he was "reluctantly" released, and now he is out of the sport completely.
Those are only two examples from a backlog from which I could write a series of books. And make no mistake, I still feel the outrage and frustration of every single instance. But no amount of slamming my head against a wall will change what happened - or, indeed, what will happen to other people I care about as the racing world grinds inexorably on.
So when I tell people I don't want INDYCAR to make special exceptions for certain people or teams or sponsors or other parties, it's not because I don't care. It's because none of this is about justice or entitlement or fairness or karma.
It's not pleasant. But it's just business.