Sunday, April 02, 2006

Money, talent and safety

I have to tip my hat to open wheel journalist Robin Miller for his comments on Speed Channel's Wind Tunnel last Sunday in regards to the tragic death of Indycar driver Paul Dana. The gist of what he was saying is that motor racing is probably the only professional sport where you can buy your way into the top levels of the sport. Think about that one for a moment….

In my time as a co-driver in rallying I’ve seen a number of very rich people crash very expensive, well-prepped cars, simply because they were new to the sport. So far, at least in US rallying, this hasn’t resulted in any fatalities, and with Rally America taking over the old SCCA series it looks like they’ve adopted some sensible rules to address this: a driver must effectively compete in 6 full-length rallies in a 2WD normally-aspirated car before getting behind the wheel of a car with 4WD or turbos. Rallying is one of the more unpredictable, dangerous forms of motorsport and this kind of sensible rule-making contributes as much to safety as the Nomex suit or HANS device.

However, in the high-speed, high-stakes world of the Indy Racing League, it’s clear that their licensing restrictions are not tight enough. It’s a widely-held notion that Paul Dana was not experienced enough to be running in the IRL. So why was he there? The simple answer is money – he brought in a LOT of sponsorship money from an organization promoting the use of ethanol fuel. Bobby Rahal could have put 20 or more other drivers in that car who were better-qualified to compete in the IRL, but Dana brought the bacon, and got the ride. It ended up costing him his life. It’s obviously in bad taste to point any fingers in this tragedy but let’s just say that the IRL, Rahal and Dana himself were all complicit in allowing the deal to happen.

Luckily, in the majority of cases in motor racing, money will only get you so far. A team owner may choose driver or rider A over driver or rider B based on how much sponsorship they bring to the table even if B is faster. But if driver or rider C shows up with 10 times the sponsorship but 10% of the talent they will probably not get the ride. Invariably talentless no-hopers will struggle to secure sponsorship anyway.

Sadly, though, every now and then someone will slip through this elaborately woven net and the careful balancing of money, talent and safety goes badly wrong. If that happens on a twisty road-racing track with decent runoff and relatively low speeds, most of the time Mr. Moneybags Rookie Racer will get a fright, maybe some minor injuries, and go home. On a 200mph oval the outcome can be tragically different.

RIP Paul Dana and sympathies to the Dana family.

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