It’s a topic I’m seriously pondering, and looking for other opinions on. That the question occurred to me at all was the work of Denise McCluggage, a journalist who raced cars in the 1950s. (That’s author Jill Amadio on the left, Denise, and me.)
I had the good luck to chat with Denise over dinner at a conference a few months ago, and something she said got me thinking. It started with me exclaiming at the fact that she won at Sebring, to which she demurred, “well, only in GT,” and I responded, “you still won!” She told me also that one of her co-drivers was another journalist, and further explained, “It was a sport then, not a business, like today.”
After that conversation, I learned about a team, whose owner I happen to know, that seems to be making a business out of running in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. In contrast to the sportscar world (at least the American Le Mans Series) where this owner ran a team for many years, and where I met him, participants in NASCAR are paid a share of the purse, down to last place (43rd) on the grid. And not just a token share of the purse, but enough to pay for the costs of getting the team to the race and on the grid for the weekend—and more. Enough that a team can make a profit by going to every race, qualifying, and starting to race, but sometimes parking the car after only a few laps. That earns purse money and saves the potential cost of a wrecked or damaged car.
So it seems that NASCAR, at least, is a business—and by that I mean a money-making proposition. I’m sure racing is also a business for some teams in other series—Grand-Am, ALMS, or IndyCar—but that these series also have many drivers, cars, and teams running for pure sport (i.e., not for profit, just for fun). I don’t mean to suggest that the pro drivers and profit-seeking teams aren’t sportsmen (and women) and don’t have fun. But I think there’s also a difference between drivers, crew, and teams whose full-time jobs and primary means of earning a living is racing and the man or woman with a day job who spends their discretionary income and free time to run a team or race a car on the weekends.
Perhaps what I mean is that the “sportsmen” are the non-professionals, the amateurs, the “gentlemen drivers.” If that’s the case, then the answer to “sport or business?” really depends on the series. The higher-level the series (the four mentioned above for sure), the more likely you’ve got professional teams looking to turn a profit. In the lower-levels—the Pirelli World Challenge series, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, and Firestone Indy Lights, for example—maybe it’s more sport than business?
Certainly when Denise made the comment, “I was a journalist, and I did what I wrote about, and had a little talent for it,” I thought that could never happen today. And then I watched David and Andrea Robertson, owners of Robertson Racing (which seems to be a labor of love, not a money-maker for the married couple), take third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I had to admit maybe it’s not all business these days after all.
What do you think?