Oct 18, 2008
A couple of years ago, when there were two Indy car series, the people who owned them were frantic for cars. Champ Car and the IRL would literally roll out the red carpet for anyone who showed up. Sometimes, they went further.
In 2005, to fill out the field at Long Beach, Champ Car talked one of its Formula Atlantic owners into running a guy nobody had ever heard of. A total nobody.
"I don't have a Champ Car," said the Atlantic owner. "We'll get you one," said Champ Car.
"I don't have that kind of money (to run a Champ Car)," the Atlantic owner said. "We'll reimburse you," said Champ Car.
So they got him a Champ Car all right – a show car that had been on display in Montreal. They also got him an engine from the manufacturer that happened to be owned by Champ Car.
The Atlantic owner ran the guy in the Long Beach Grand Prix, but he emptied his bank account in the process.
Champ Car had a field, so they were happy. Nobody has heard of the driver since. The Atlantic owner is still waiting for the money that was promised to him.
Moral: They love you when they need you. Afterwards, not so much.
In 2004, only 33 cars showed up to race at the Indianapolis 500, which, for most of its 90-plus years, has been considered a full field.
The Indy Racing League people were happy to see Marty Roth of Toronto that year. Really happy. Without Roth, the first "short field" in the history of the 500 would have gone to the post.
Roth ran in four Indy 500s. He didn't have great success but he was never the slowest qualifier and he never finished last.
He ran a team full-time in the IRL this past season. Again, he did not enjoy great finishes (13th at Nashville was his best) but he qualified well four times – eighth in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, seventh at Kansas, 11th at Kentucky and ninth at Chicagoland.
I'm not great at math but Indy car racing was one big happy family this season and the average starting field was 26 cars, so if Roth qualified seventh at Kansas, say, then 19 cars were behind him driven by people who didn't go as fast as he did.
I'd say that's pretty good.
But not good enough, apparently, for the Indy Racing League. Roth has received word that the IRL is not fussy about having him around. They say he's too slow, that he's getting in people's way, that he doesn't fit "the demographic".
They love you when they need you. Afterwards, not so much.
So Roth has laid off 20 of his 25 employees and put his team up for sale – including four cars and a shop in Indianapolis – and he's washed his hands of racing with the IRL now and, he says, forever.
As far as he's concerned, the next time they need guys like him – which could come as early as March at Homestead-Miami when only 15 or 16 cars show up for the season opener (with the economy tanking like it is) – he will tell them to go take a hike.
"I actually have not talked directly to the IRL about this," Roth told me in conversation this week. "I've called; they won't call me back. But this is what happened:
"I was approached by three men at the last race in Chicago who wanted to get involved with my team – to run it and to market it. That has always been a big problem for me, a lack of budgeting. That and a lack of testing really did me in. When I could test, I did well – including on the road courses. When I couldn't test – and they wouldn't let me test most of the time – I had a hard time.
"One of the people was Jim Freudenberg. Jim has an incredible resumé in racing (among other things, he was part of the management team at the Molson Indy races in Toronto and Vancouver). He and the other two felt I had a great demographic: the league is full of 25-year-olds all going after the same sponsors. I have my own demographic – I'm turning 50!"
Roth was excited by this turn of events. He's been beating his head against a brick wall all these years by acting as driver and – with wife Margaret – as team manager and marketing director. It's been a tonne of work.
"This was the icing on the cake," Roth said. "This was what we'd been waiting for."
However, when Freudenberg and the others went to talk to the IRL about their plans, they returned with news that Roth was not happy to hear. "The IRL told them that they didn't want me driving any more, that they wanted me out of the cockpit and somebody else should drive. They wanted me to just be an owner. The quote was: `His demographic is as an owner, not as a driver.'
"Have you ever heard of anything so stupid in your life?" Roth thundered.
"What the hell is an `owner demographic?' I'll tell you what it is, it's ageism. It's age discrimination. So I told Jim there was no way I was going to do that."
Freudenberg, according to Roth, went back to the IRL and returned with what would appear to have been some sort of compromise proposal.
"They told me they'd (the IRL) let me do Indy and `a bunch of ovals.' I said, `What ovals?' We're trying to develop a business here, we're trying to sell a product – to race and promote a sponsor – and they say they'll let me run a `bunch of ovals!'
"So Freudenberg says to them, `What about Toronto (where the IRL will race next July after a year's absence)? Roth is from Toronto and I could sell a sponsorship for Toronto tomorrow.' And the IRL says, `Okay, we'll let him run Toronto.'"
This is when Roth really got hot under the collar.
"This makes absolutely no sense," he said. "I can't run a race team like this. I have never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life. They're telling me what races I can run? It goes from none, to Indy and a `bunch of ovals,' to Toronto? The hell with it. I'll tell them what races I'll run – I'll run none of them!"
Roth, who freely admits he's licking his wounds, softened his tirade – somewhat.
"It's unfortunate," he said. "I put my heart and soul into this. I loved the IRL. I didn't see this coming. I didn't think we had a bad year. A couple of times we sat on the grid in front of AGR cars (Andretti-Green), in front of Penske cars and that's a really good feeling, being the underdog.
"And it's doubly unfortunate because now we won't be racing in Toronto – and now that Formula One's gone, how long will it be before Montreal opens up as a market for the IRL? I should be there."
Roth finished 24th in this year's IRL standings. There were 15 drivers behind him, including Milka Duno and Mario Dominguez.
If the IRL hasn't sent those drivers – and others like them – the same message, they owe Marty Roth an apology.Norris McDonald wraps up weekend racing every Monday on Wheels.ca email@example.com