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IndyCar drivers need a stronger voice

(via RACER // by: James Hinchcliffe) – I have the best job in the world. I love what I do, and I hope I can continue to do it for a long time. I get to race in the most diverse series in the world, against ridiculously strong competition. Who wouldn’t want to be an IndyCar driver?

That said, the reality is that there are situations where our interests as drivers aren’t always being represented, and to be honest, situations where some guys are being taken advantage of.

I don’t think that there’s collusion within IndyCar that leads to driver salaries being manipulated or anything along those lines, although I’ve certainly heard of that happening in other series. And I’m very sympathetic to the realities of running an IndyCar team: the series is stronger and more stable now than it has been in many years, but it still takes a tremendous amount of effort to make a team financially viable. Still, there are situations where we need to look at how we can make the relationship between the sport and the drivers more balanced than it is at the moment.

A lot of drivers, myself included, came up through the ranks not knowing anyone in motorsports, not having anyone to bounce ideas off of, not having anyone to essentially protect them. Many drivers have outside representation, but many don’t, because they can’t afford to pay an agent, or a management company or whatever it is. Most of the time, you’re not making any money until you get to IndyCar. You’re certainly not getting paid in Indy Lights. And when you sit down to hammer out that first contract, you’re negotiating on your own, and absolutely in that situation a team can take advantage of drivers. It doesn’t happen in every case, but you don’t have to walk far down pitlane to find a driver with a story to tell. There are drivers out there right now that drive for free. You shouldn’t have to risk your life for free. There should be league minimums, like there are in the NFL.

Every other professional sport has a players’ association for a reason. Motorsports should be no different. We’re behind the times in a lot of different ways in terms of how we’re treated as athletes within our own sport, and this is just one example. But it’s something I think is very important, because we have people who are out there risking their lives. We’ve already had conversations with the series, which has been very supportive about the idea of putting together some sort of deferred compensation plan for drivers who compete in the series for a certain number of years, or events. Again though, that’s the kind of thing that only comes with having some sort of association.

The goal is not for us to be stomping our feet and screaming, ‘this is not right’ and talking about boycotting races. We don’t want to be officiating or writing the rules – letting drivers do that would be the worst thing you could go and do! The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association in Formula 1 is more geared toward allowing drivers to have a say in conversations about the sport itself, and it is certainly very effective for some things. But it doesn’t protect drivers in the sense that I would like to see, and the way that other players unions do. I do think it’s important that we have a voice, and that we make sure that the drivers are being looked after the way that athletes are in other pro sports.

I’ve talked about this with some of the other drivers in IndyCar, and the feedback I’ve gotten has been mostly positive. The issue is that drivers are terrified of angering team owners. They don’t want to lose their job. And that makes sense; nobody wants to lose their jobs. I’m no different.

At some point, this vision that some other drivers and I have talked about… there are going to be some ugly conversations and arguments along the way. But there are some issues that are worth fighting for. If you took a vote in a room of who was in favor of said issue, you might get unanimous support – but as soon as you leave the room, and you have to go to your team owners individually and say something about it… if one guy breaks, the whole system fails. Having a system in place that would allow us to actually voice our true opinions through a mediator would really help strengthen the drivers’ positions.

For that reason, it’s going to be very difficult for an active driver to get something like this off the ground. If you no longer have a team, a manufacturer and a title sponsor to answer to, that conversation becomes a lot easier. I’d love it if there was somebody who is currently retired who wants to get the ball rolling, but if it hasn’t happened by the time I retire – whenever that is – and if there’s still a need for it, then it’s something that I am going to put my full weight behind, because it’s something that I’m pretty passionate about.

It might sound like I’m talking about a driver’s union, but to be honest, I hate the word ‘union’ because there are so many negative connotations associated with it. We’re not looking for a huge chunk of the TV money or whatever it is. It’s not like the recent NBA deal that allows players to make insane amounts of money from the TV contracts and all the rest of it. It really is just for protection.

And it’s also to help organize things like group insurance: a lot of guys on the grid don’t have insurance. That is a terrifying thought, and it shouldn’t be allowed. But it is very expensive to go to an insurance company and say, ‘I drive at 225 miles an hour around 25 other cars, and inches from a concrete wall. Please insure me.’ So if you’re a driver making literally no money, how can you expect to be insured? And that’s just not right. There needs to be some sort of mechanism that protects the people that are out there risking their lives to put on a show for the fans, and support the sponsors, and all the rest of it. Drivers feel very disposable at the moment. And it’s heartbreaking.

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