The ultimate free agents

March 17, 2016

The ultimate free agents

March 17, 2016

dollar_gridAs the baseball season approaches and football conducts its draft, a quick look at the entry list here at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring reminds us that race car drivers are the ultimate free agents.

While there are technical regulations, testing limitations and other cost savings measures in place, there is no fixed salary cap in motorsports.

For drivers, it is a global marketplace and there are no trades, compensatory draft picks or players to be named later to be exchanged. But, free agency cuts both ways.

For a driver, the greatest fear is to be left without a proper ride.

Still, it is a bit ironic that the ultimate free agent racers are perhaps the stars most dependent on a team structure that includes managers, engineers, crew members and a mechanical beast that can make a driver’s career or break his heart.

While cyber metrics are the norm in the traditional sports, no sport has more data than motorsports.

The cars are loaded with sensors and the drivers’ performance and even his or her biometrics can be measured on every inch of every lap in real time comparison to rivals and teammates alike.

Top teams maintain files on prospective drivers and everyone has an eye out for the next hot shoe.

tandyPorsche’s Nick Tandy (pictured right), who had a spectacular breakout year in 2015, winning overall at both the Le Mans 24 Hour race and at Petit Le Mans was on the street not so long ago.

When a big factory program like the Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT signals its arrival on the scene, with eight full-season seats to fill plus needing a quartet of third drivers for Le Mans, other teams moved to lock-in some drivers with longer contracts.

Conversely, the withdrawal of the Nissan LMP1 program left an equal number of drivers suddenly available.

Having signed Joey Hand in the previous year, the CGR Ford line-up now features new recruits like BMW’s Dirk Müller, Corvette’s Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook, and Aston Martin’s Stefan Mucke plus Marino Franchitti, Olivier Pla and Andy Priaulx.

fasslerUnless specifically constrained in their respective contracts, drivers can often participate in multiple series and with more than one manufacturer. Audi’s Marcel Fassler (pictured left) and Mike Rockenfeller are on loan here to Corvette Racing.

And Scott Dixon, the defending series champion in a Chevrolet powered IndyCar, is here aboard a Ford GT.

The often controversial “driver rating” system used in international motorsports can knock some qualified drivers out of the seat if they carry a rating too high to match the needs of the Pro-Am classes.

franchittiMarino Franchitti (pictured right), Guy Cosmo, Gunnar Jeannette and others all struggled to find rides in recent years.

In the Pro-Am classes, like PC and GTD, the most prized drivers are “under-rated” quick drivers who have flown below the international rating system or, once over age 50, can lower their rating.

That group now includes Scott Pruett, a five time overall race winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona who will make his Lexus GTD class debut later this summer.

Andy Lally, Spencer Pumpelly and Jeroen Bleekemolen are examples of top drivers who have enjoyed success in the GTD class by delivering performance and coaxing the best from their lower rated co-drivers.

braunColin Braun (pictured left) and Jon Bennett have proven the ideal Pro-Am pair in the CORE autosport string of PC class championships.

For many drivers, the dream is a full-season ride with a big, stable factory team. Drivers like Audi’s Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, and Corvette Racing’s Ron Fellows have built long relationships that carry beyond their driving days.

Sometimes even winning isn’t enough. Kuno Wittmer, the popular 2014 IMSA GTLM driving champion was out of a ride when he crossed the finish line to claim the championship as the factory pulled the plug on his SRT Viper team.

He is here aboard a BMW Team RLL GTLM entry, but still anxious for a full season ride.

Like a player who struggles in one city and shines in the next, having the right fit and supporting environment can unlock a driver’s potential.

Tommy Milner struggled early in his career at BMW Team RLL, but since joining Corvette Racing in 2011 at age 25, he has a pair of class wins at Le Mans, victories at Sebring and Daytona and the 2012 ALMS co-championship.

Sometimes making the right move off the track is as important as making the right moves on the track.

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