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by Larry Roberts

March 27, 1998

If you are a casual auto racing observer - one of the great multitude who find themselves watching a big-time auto race on TV by accident or out of boredom, you may ask yourself, "Who are these people who go racing? Why are some of them obviously so highly skilled, while others appear to be just getting in the way?" Or maybe you ask yourself why some of them get into so much trouble while others make driving at 240 MPH seem look so effortless.

The answer may be incredulous to fans of other sports. Most of the drivers are serious and skilled professionals who started their careers in high-speed go-kart racing at a very early age. Others are simply rich playboys searching for thrills.

And at four miles per minute, they find them.

This doesn't happen in other sports such as baseball, football, hockey and the rest. Those sports take hard work, skill and some luck to make a superstar. In their minor leagues, there are thousands of talented newcomers who will never make it to the big time. But the difference is obvious: a hockey stick, baseball mitt or a pair of basketball shoes are minuscule investments compared to the money involved in a single race car and its team. And if a well-heeled semi-amateur approaches a team owner with a promise of putting a few million dollars into the team's year-long endeavor, who's to fault the cash-strapped owner from taking money - albeit with a grimace rather than a grin. The big name multi-national corporations that invest many millions in a first-class operations want to make sure their investment has a chance for success and as in any other sport, there are just so many potential winners in the field.

In the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series, one driver, a Japanese national, has never been among the top six finishers, much less won a race in his eight years behind the wheel. The track-side TV announcers are very brief when they comment that the race leaders are having trouble lapping the much slower back-marker. What those announcers don't tell their viewers is that the driver put up $4-million last year to "buy" his ride and that the money helped defray the expenses the team has to incur to put two other professional drivers in identical cars into the field. Without the buy-a-ride driver, that team would have a tough time fielding one car much less three.

Nowhere is this buy-a-ride situation more prevalent that in American sports car endurance racing. At the recent running of what is arguably the most prestigious 24-hour sports car race in the country, the aging owner of the winning car hired three highly skilled and prestigious drivers from around the world to put the car into first place with a half-hour to go. The owner then took over and was credited with the win, even though he had slowed down the pros by being involved in four separate accidents. A nice fellow I'm told, but not world-class.

The financing of a car in the Indy Racing League (IRL) series has been intentionally kept low to help alleviate the need for multi-million dollar corporate investments, as well as its parallel need for millionaire amateurs. The one exception is a wealthy dentist who bought his own team and always seems to be in the way of the leaders.

This is not the case with the NASCAR Winston Cup series, however. To achieve a ride in this, the most high-profile and professional form of American auto racing, a driver must prove his mettle in the minor-league Busch Series or in NASCAR Craftsman truck races. In NASCAR, no one seems to be able to "buy" his way into a ride.

But this situation of being able to rent a "ride" may not be all bad. Without big "private" money, the fields of certain high-profile events might be diminished to the point where they wouldn't retain what corporate sponsors are already there. If the corporations went away, so would TV coverage and then we'd be relegated back to the days of watching only stick-and-ball sports on Sunday afternoon.