I have a confession to make: I may be the last straight man in America who watches the Oscars. It’s true. Keep in mind, I don’t watch to see what people are wearing, or who they brought with them, or what they say in their acceptance speeches. And quite frankly, I hardly ever have seen more than one or two of the movies nominated. (Want to make sure people DON’T see your movie, do you? Very well. Then be sure to call it “The Reader.” Or possibly “The Tax Abatement Seminar.” But mainly “The Reader.” Well played, Hollywood.)
No, I watch because there are few moments in life where you can see such globally obvious injustice as the Academy Awards. Case in point: Cher, Kevin Costner, Ernest Borgnine, and Whoopie Goldberg each have Oscars. Conversely, Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Burton, Glenn Close (who still genuinely frightens my generation), Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick all have as many as I do. Hillary Swank, meanwhile, has TWO.
So this year I watched in anticipation of another great injustice you could see coming a mile away. Robert Downey Jr. just logged possibly the greatest, most original comedic performance in my lifetime in “Tropic Thunder” and he was about to lose to a dead guy. Making matters worse was that Downey, a recovering drug addict who has miraculously resurrected his career to become one of the top actors alive, was going to lose to a guy who died of a drug overdose. Moreover, Downey got the shaft, literally, since Cuba Gooding Jr. (who also has no business having an Oscar) mocked him by saying Downey was going to star in “Shaft.” The complex irony of it all just gave me an aneurysm.
Which brings me to IndyCar, because you know who can REALLY empathize with Downey? Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ryan is young, personable, intelligent, and lacking in any known criminal record. Some may say he’s even a handsome felow. He’s also the only guy to win a race in CART, Champ Car and the IndyCar series, and for all of this he is unemployed.
Now, I’ve already gone over this ride-buyers market and how we should be thankful some people are willing to find money to pay to drive in the IndyCar Series, but this entire discussion always involves the “injustice” of drivers who are missing because someone else brought a check. We have this discussion every year, because every year there is someone who’s shockingly without a seat. A few years ago it was Al Unser Jr., and then Buddy Lazier – both winners of The 500. Then last year it was Paul Tracy, who’s absence had folks developing hemorrhoids. And now he’s been usurped by Hunter-Reay on the Throne of Injustice.
Now, I know what you’re saying because you’ve already sent me the angry emails. You think that this “cheapens the sport” because when the best aren’t allowed to compete, it’s not truly a sport. You think giving the stiff-arm to accomplished drivers amounts to saying…hang on here, I gotta copy one of these.
“F**k you, Larry Bird. You’re poor white trash from southern Indiana and you can’t even afford shoes. We don’t want you here on our noble Celtics. We prefer our players to be of upper class and dignity and able to articulate nicely. That’s what our sponsors prefer, and that’s the way it’s always been. Hit the road, trailer trash.”
“F**k you, Jim Brown. You’re black and poor and quite frankly, no company in the world will want you endorsing their product. Shit, they won’t even let you in their stores. So it stands to reason that wouldn’t buy group packages to our games if I were to sign you. Tough luck.”
“F**k you, Roberto Clemente. You know how marketable your village in Puerto Rico is??? It’s NOT, you asshole. Sure … you can hit. And field. And run. You can do all that better than any person who’s ever lived. But I ask you this: HOW MUCH MONEY WILL YOU BRING ME??? Not very much, I’m afraid. Get the f**k out.”
All cogent points, but points about stick and ball sports – not auto racing. Auto racing is a team sport like others, but the team in this case isn’t just human capital like coaches who yell “pass the f**king ball” but additionally something that doesn’t exist in baseball, football or basketball: technology.
Other team sports don’t worry too often about who has a bat, a helmet or a set of shoes that puts the other teams at a competitive disadvantage, and as such they can focus on simply hiring the best players. In racing, however, these competitive disadvantages manifest themselves constantly and need to be addressed by people with brains larger than my own.
And how do you get those people with big brains to make your car faster, more maneuverable, and ultimately safer? Why you pay them crazy mad amounts of cash. That’s how. You may not know their names, but you know someone is building those freaky wing mounts at Penske, someone is executing those pit stops in record time at Ganassi, someone has figured out how to get Milka Duno from being lapped in the first ten minutes of a race, and every one of those folks gets paid.
So yes, to a degree, not having the best 20 drives involved cheapens the racing, but only at the most visible level – the driver. If you prefer, the IndyCar series could conceivably be designed as a racing series that was entirely a meritocracy of the players like the NFL or NBA, but if you want teams to only hire drivers then that necessitates eliminating the technical aspect.
We had that once – it was called “IROC.” Tell me, did you buy tickets to that?
(And on a side note, this paycheck-related phenomenon actually does occur in other sports. Ever seen a guy with little or no skills left get playing time over a someone with more talent simply because the former has several years left on his mega-obscene contract? See: O’Neal, Shaquille.)
Racing is and always has been about the technology as much as the driver, about pushing the edges of science to allow Jim Clark or Rick Mears or Scott Dixon to pilot their cars as well as humanly possible. Getting the best driver would be great too, but you can’t pay a driver and not the team behind him and think that the results would be anything commendable. In fact, they’d be disastrous.
It really and truly sucks that Ryan isn’t employed to race right now because clearly he’s shown himself to be an asset to the series. Like drunken fans in nearby seats, unfair criticism of Jack Arute, and bad Andretti luck at Indy, as well as Heath Ledger’s death and posthumous awards, it’s simply something that we can’t do much about. Just keep mentioning Hunter-Reay’s name publicly as much as possible so potential sponsors know how deep your fandom runs, and remember that one day in the not-too-distant future we’ll be discussing the next driver to sit on the Throne of Injustice. Who knows, it might even be one of today’s ride-buyers who eventually finds himself an accomplished driver who is unfairly missing from the Series.