This past weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Graham Rahal made the announcement that we had all been waiting for - that he has secured the funding to compete in the next two IZOD IndyCar Series seasons. Service Central, which hooked up with Rahal for races with Sarah Fisher Racing and Newman/Haas Racing this year, will write the checks for Rahal.
The problem is, Rahal and Service Central haven't signed with a team yet.
Add Rahal to the category of "ride buyers" - professional racecar drivers who bring their own sponsorship dollars to race teams in a poor economy, and are thus installed in the otherwise blank racecars. It's a problem that has plagued much of racing over the past few years; from NASCAR, where Kevin Conway's Extenze sponsorship has landed him multiple rides, to Formula One, where many of the smaller teams take on drivers with personal services contracts.
Worst in the major forms of motorsport is IndyCar, which has seen fewer and fewer fully funded rides over the past few years.
Ride buying is certainly a way of life in racing, and always has been. Any driver with a little bit of talent and a stable paycheck behind him will land himself in a vehicle before the end of the season, if only for one race. The act of buying a ride itself isn't the problem.
The problem in IndyCar is that more and more of the ride buyers are unproven foreign drivers that the fans can't identify (nevermind identify with), and they tear up equipment that is unfamiliar to them. Meanwhile, American drivers that have earned the right to compete in their home country's biggest event, the Indianapolis 500, are stuck on the sidelines because American-based sponsors are wary of committing to them or the race teams.
That isn't to say that some of these ride buyers are undeserving. In fact, a lot of the drivers who have paid their own way into the series have had some solid performances. It's tough for them to take victories with the little teams that usually hire them, but they find ways to assert that they are deserving pilots.
Some of the drivers who have bought rides in one way or another this year include Ryan Hunter-Reay (7th in points and a win at Long Beach for Izod), Danica Patrick (10th and two runner-up finishes for GoDaddy), Justin Wilson (11th, a pole, and two second place runs for Z-Line Designs), Simona de Silvestro (19th in points with some strong road course runs despite the oldest tub in the series for Stargate Worlds), and Bertrand Baguette (22nd despite missing two races, and showing consistent improvement for a slew of Belgian companies). It's hard to make the argument in any of these cases that the drivers didn't deserve to be there, even if only two of those listed above are Americans.
As for other deserving "ride buyers," consider Paul Tracy, the 2003 Champ Car champion and one of the best open-wheel drivers in recent history; Ana Beatriz, a talented Firestone Indy Lights graduate with two wins in that series; Sebastian Saavedra, another Lights grad who has won in every series in which he's ever competed; and now Rahal, who won in his IndyCar debut in 2008 and finished seventh in points in 2009.
No, the problem is not being a ride buyer in this economy. There is no shame in attracting sponsorship to yourself by turning yourself into a solid pitchman, especially when it keeps the talent listed above on the race track. Truth is, once things turn back up and more sponsors come to IndyCar (when/if that happens), these drivers won't need to be hunting for their own money, because they'll all be hired.
The problem is that some of the other ride buyers haven't done much to deserve the seats they hold.
So much has been written about Milka Duno already that it's not worth wasting more space on her, especially when the consensus is that her license will not be renewed for 2011. But consider the incredibly slow mid-season runs of Francesco Dracone with Conquest Racing. Look at the way that all three KV Racing Technology drivers tore up equipment this season. One could even attempt to make a case for Tomas Scheckter based on a handful of mediocre finishes this year.
Meanwhile, North American talents like J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Jonathan Summerton, Rahal, and Tracy, as well as former Champ Car stalwarts like Bruno Junqueira and Oriol Servia, sat on the sidelines for much (if not all) of the season.
It's when these drivers get bumped out of rides that the problems begin to fester. IndyCar is a predominantly American series. Its fans would much rather see hometown heroes like those above race to win than unproven foreign ride buyers tear up equipment. And while everybody understands this, nobody is able to make a case to the sponsors to make this change, because the sponsors are often based elsewhere in the world and have their own markets to look out for.
The term for the concept is tribalism - each side would much prefer to watch the drivers that it identifies with. But as many fans of the sport may exist, there are no fan-sponsored race teams that have a proven track record or consistent money flow. The sponsors win.
IndyCar is in a position of weakness at this point, because limiting these foreign ride buyers to, say, only the ones with race victories in major foreign open-wheel series would be A) discriminatory, and B) severely limiting money flow into the series. Right now, money is as valuable as it's ever been to the sport.
Until the American economy strengthens more and a greater base of American companies view IndyCar as a marketing tool, the problem is going to continue. In the meantime, we're just going to have to put up with ride buyers, worthy or not, because until the series can keep afloat on its own with fully-sponsored cars the way that NASCAR can, we really need the money.