Byline: BRANT JAMES; Times Staff Writer
Their careers began to crater around them, and they couldn't do anything about it.
U.S. banking institutions spasmed, the stock market retched, Fortune 500 companies quaked, discretionary monies vanished. Race teams lost sponsors, drivers lost jobs.
So simplistic, yet so simply life-altering for a collection of successful open-wheel drivers left unemployed as Sunday's Indy Racing League season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, gets nearer.
"It's really tough, frustrating as well," said Justin Wilson, 30, one of two transitioning Champ Car drivers to win an IndyCar race last season. "What do you do? Do you jump up and down and scream about it and stamp your feet and say it's not fair or do you get on with it and try to make the most of the situation you have?"
Both are complicated processes. Three months before the 2009 season, three drivers who won IRL races last year were without work. But Wilson now has a deal in place with Dale Coyne Racing, Ryan Hunter-Reay is scheduled to sign with Vision Racing today and Will Power agreed in January to fill a seat at Team Penske as Helio Castroneves stands trial for federal income tax evasion.
"I'm sure he'd want it differently," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said of Power's job security, "but he's always known what the score is."
Four days before the first green flag, 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice and seven-year veteran Tomas Scheckter are without rides. Milka Duno, the charismatic former sports car racer who undertook partial schedules the past two seasons, tested with Newman/Haas/Lanigan but needs funding after losing longtime backer Citgo.
It has been a humbling experience for Robert Doornbos, whose life lesson began earlier than the rest. The 2007 Champ Car rookie of the year, who won twice and finished third overall that year, learned early last year that his Minardi Team USA had decided not to join the IRL. Doornbos, 27, eventually raced in the A1GP and Super League series before testing for Renault's Formula One team. It was not what he had in mind.
"It's like you losing your job after you thought you would get a promotion," he said. "It was the last thing I expected. (Do well and) you get a pay raise, you get a bonus. It would be great. Then, suddenly, they pull the plug and you're back home in Monaco. I'm staring out the window going, 'What am I doing? What do you do now?' "
Wilson lost his ride at Newman/Haas/Lanigan when the team opted to sign Graham Rahal long-term and transfer Wilson's sponsor to the 20-year-old's underfunded car. The team, he was told, couldn't afford to pay two drivers without another sponsor. Moving from one of open-wheel racing's most successful teams to a scrappy, small one has been enlightening.
"You notice the people," Wilson said. "At Newman/Haas/Lanigan, we had 35 to 40 at the racetrack. Now it's eight. Those guys are flat-out. You can't do as many things. You can't do them as in-depth as before. You have to manage your resources."
Still, Wilson is lucky in that Coyne already had a sponsor. Dornboos had to agree to bring money to land Wilson's old ride. It takes about $8 million to run a competitive IndyCar program. His management, like Wilson's engineers, Doornbos said, "is working flat-out."
Hunter-Reay was orphaned by Rahal Letterman when the ethanol industry sponsorship that supported his race-winning car last season was discontinued. He will bring a personal services deal to Vision as part of his sponsorship.
"Ryan was at the end of his deal. We had an option on him, but obviously we couldn't take it without the sponsorship," team owner Bobby Rahal said. "I guess he's going to drive for (Vision owner) Tony George, which is good for him. Not so good for the other teams looking for sponsors, but good for him.
"You want to make sure you have the proper level of funding to do it. I never went to a race just to be there. I went to win."
Rahal Letterman's IndyCar program is seeking sponsors but is dormant, and Rahal said at this point in the season even seeking money to attempt a run at the Indianapolis 500 is "starting to look a little bit bleak."
That's going around these days.
Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
2:45-5 p.m., Sunday, Downtown St. Petersburg.
Three days with Saturday and Sunday reserved: upper rows, adult $110, junior (12 and younger) $80; lower rows, adult $85, junior $55
Sunday reserved seat:adult $60-$80, junior $35-$55
General admission: three days, adult $45, junior $20; Friday or Saturday, adult $25, junior $10; Sunday, adult $40, junior $15
8:05-9:05 a.m.: American Le Mans Series practice
9:25-10:25: Indy Lights practice
10:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: IndyCar practice
1:05-3:05: ALMS practice andqualifying
3:25-4:25: IndyCar practice
4:45-5:30: Indy Lights qualifyingfor Race 1
8:05-9:05 a.m.: IndyCar practice
9:20-9:40: ALMS warmup
9:55-10:35: Indy Lights qualifying forRace 2
10:50 a.m.-12:20 p.m.: IndyCar finalqualifying
1:20-3:15: ALMS race
4:45-5:45: Indy Lights Race 1 (40 laps)
8:30-9 a.m.: IndyCar practice
10-11: Indy Lights Race 2 (40 laps)
2:45-5 p.m.: IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (100 laps)
PHOTO, Getty Images (2007): Justin Wilson had won races in both Champ Car and IndyCar the past two years but was out of a ride until signing with Dale Coyne.