Motorsports, Nepotism and Envy

Photo courtesy of PPG

Pardon me if this is out of bounds, because this is going to veer into economic philosophy, but I want to talk about motorsports, nepotism and envy. Paul Menard’s NASCAR Sprint Cup win in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has gotten people talking about buying your way into top levels of racing.

I’m kind of confused about people complaining about Paul Menard being a member of the lucky sperm club. Though as far as I know, Keith Crain and Dutch Mandel’s publications have had the good taste to avoid that particular topic, it did come up in interviews with Menard after the race. Yes, his father is wealthy, a billionaire (though he made his money himself and seems to have done it honestly) and yes, NASCAR markets itself to middle class Americans, so I can understand some resentment, but all I have to do is mention some family names besides the Menards’ and I think most folks will immediately see how silly it is to single out Paul Menard for inheriting his spot on the grid.

Andretti
Unser
Earnhardt
Walltrip
Allison
Petty
Gurney
Bell
Roush
Villeneuve
Rahal
Senna

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Junior Johnson has an older teenage son whose racing career he’s managing. Richard Childress is doing the same with his grandsons, rising NASCAR star Austin Dillon and his brother, ARCA racer Troy Dillon. There are second and third generation racers all over the globe. Rod and Rhys Millen out of New Zealand are but one example (not to mention Rhys’ uncle Steve, who raced and has a well regarded tuning business)

The offspring of those mentioned families who have decided to go into racing have had, in Mark Donohue’s words, an unfair advantage in terms of possibly inheriting some unique physical skills, but more importantly, they are being taught by the best, and have access to good equipment early on in their careers and lots of track time, along with having a recognizable name that potential sponsors will like. Also, whether the family business is racing or home improvement stores, existing relationships with sponsors helps. Pay attention to those brand names on Paul Menard’s car and racing uniform the next time you visit a Menard’s store.

On the other hand, remember, it’s not always bed of roses to be following in the footsteps of an illustrious parent or family. There will always be people who will point out that Kyle Petty and Dale Jr. are not the drivers that their fathers were, even though I’m sure that Kyle and Dale Jr. could spank 99.99% of racing fans out on the track. Michael Walltrip has won the Daytona 500 and has raced in the 24 hour races at that track and at LeMans, but I know a very respected racing journalist, one whom I agree with most of the time, who snorts and scoffs at the notion that Michael knows how to race cars.

Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong. I find Mikey entertaining in small doses. The fact is that life isn’t about being dealt a good hand, but playing the hand that you are dealt well. Some people are born with four aces and a fifth in their back pocket, some with a busted straight, but we all end up in the ground. We’re all, in many ways, members of the lucky sperm club. Each of us has gifts and advantages, and each of us has deficits and disadvantages.

Racing has always been a family sport, at just about every level, and it’s expensive at just about every level. Karting isn’t cheap and even LeMons and Chump Car racers end up spending thousands on their cars and races. At the amateur and participatory level, spouses have to agree to the expenditures of time and money and children grow up around it. At the professional level, it’s often the family business.

Now none of this has even touched on top level rent-a-racers or drivers that come with F1 levels of sponsorship that can buy them a ride even though they don’t quite have F1 levels of talent, but is that really different from the guy with the V8 powered Ariel Atom at the track where you race your Locost Se7en with Chevy S-10 components?

Life isn’t fair, get used to it and you’ll be a much more pleasant person to everyone else.

Class envy and class warfare stinks no matter where you find it. Nothing wrong with being rich if you use your money well. I was at the Concours of America on Sunday. I’m guessing that most of the owners exhibiting cars there are at least millionaires. From the cars in the parking lot, many of those attending were too. I’d love to see a Zaporozhets or a GAZ at a car show, but trying to imagine a world where the car shows are nothing but grey Zaporozhets. I think that’s what the automotive world would be like if we didn’t let people turn a profit and keep most of those profits. Those profits can then be spent on things like building another home improvement store, a more speculative venture like an Indy or NASCAR racing car, or putting your kid behind the wheel of same (or a kart, if that’s more attuned to your budget).

If it floats your boat, a 200 MPH offshore racer like the one Barry Zekelman uses to putter around Lakes St. Claire, Huron and Erie doesn’t bother me. Neither does Ken Lingenfelter, who brought a bunch of cars from his large collection of very pricey performance cars, as well as cars promoting his tuning business, to the concours. I have no idea if Barry and Ken are mercenary, ruthless and greedy fat cats. I’m not privy to their financial matters. I tend to think that they’re nice guys, though, because they’ve acted like mensches when I’ve dealt with them. I got to the concours late, as they were loading up the cars, but I made it down to the show field with my 3D video rig in time to catch Lingenfelter, in a dark read Saleen S7, I believe (I haven’t processed that particular video yet), leading a procession of his cars up to the parking lot and car haulers. Lingenfelter recognized me from the media preview when we spoke, and waved as he went by. Sure, it’s no big deal, but on a human level, I’ve been treated nicer by millionaires and billionaires like Zekelman, Lingenfelter, Roger Penske and Bob Lutz, than I have by a number of politicians.

Of course not all members of the lucky sperm club are nice guys. I won’t identify the member of congress because I’m trying to keep this non-partisan, but a local (well, he’s actually lived in Washington since the 1930s, when his father was first elected to the local district that he now represents) politician thought it was wise to play class warfare against his opponent in last year’s election, whom his campaign called a “rich doctor” with a “fancy” collection of imported “luxury” cars. The doctor in question was indeed rich, starting med school at 17 and founding a group practice that employs 300 people. He’s been a car guy his entire life, his wife drives a Mustang GT, and his own toys include a GS 455 Stage 1 Buick, a ’62 Willys wagon, a couple of ’60s vintage Alfa racers, old Fiats (he loves Italian cars) and one Ferrari 330 that he mortgaged his house to buy many years ago and is now worth a lot of money. In other words, he’s most likely living your dream automotive life.

So when this particular politician was doddering away from his photo op with Sergio Marchionne at the NAIAS this year, I asked him if he thought it was appropriate to call his opponent a rich doctor when he himself has become a multi-millionaire while serving in Congress. Now before I describe his reaction, search The Truth About Cars archives and see how cool, calm and collected Bob Lutz was when Robert Farago asked him if his pension was bankruptcy proof. Lutz basically said, ‘I dunno’. You can believe him or not, but he didn’t get angry, start to scowl, sputter and wave his hands wildly in a “get away from me” manner, which is exactly how this particular politician reacted to my question. I didn’t even get a chance to ask him about his wife, an heiress to a Detroit auto body fortune. I can say with certainty that I’ve never seen a business person act as childishly and as petulantly as this politician. That includes Rick Wagoner.

I have no idea how this congressman became a millionaire, and if he got it honestly I don’t begrudge him the money. I do know how Bob Lutz got rich and have a pretty good idea about how Lingenfelter, Zekelman and Penske made their money too. If I recall correctly, all of their fathers were not without means, but I’m also pretty sure that they’ve all have vastly exceeded their fathers’ wealth, and they did it the old fashioned way, they earned it.

Also, as far as a I know they’ve put a lot back into their communities, donating time and money to philanthropic causes and I don’t have a problem with them enjoying their toys. They didn’t burn the money, they bought very cool things with it. Unlike the above mentioned politician, when I see their names, or the names of other wealthy people, on buildings, it’s because they spent their own money, not someone else’s, getting them built.

A few years ago, when it was new, I was telling a cousin about the Ferrari Enzo and that it cost $600,000. Her response was, “I’m sure that it’s a nice car but they could have fed people with that six hundred thousand dollars.” I replied, “They did. They’re called Ferrari employees.”

The Menard family has put a lot back into racing. Paul’s achievements in racing should be praised, not envied. If you’re going to complain about people born with a silver spoons in their mouths, don’t cheer for those born with gear shift levers, steering wheels, or Congressional voting switches in their hands.

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