Talent only half the battle in race-car driving

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:17 PM ET

Throw a baseball 100 miles per hour and the major leagues will come calling. Be like Patrick Roy and National Hockey League general managers will pitch money at you. Hit enough three-pointers and David Stern will welcome you into the NBA millionaire's club on draft day.

Talent is everything.

Unless you happen to be a professional race-car driver.

In E.J. Viso's world, talent will take a driver only as far as the corporate logo on his hat pays for him to go. Being a good athlete is only half the battle.

"Racing sometimes is not that fair," said Viso, one of IndyCar racing's foot soldiers at this weekend's Honda Indy Toronto. "You can be a very good driver but you depend on luck, you depend on the team, you depend on sponsors. It's different than basketball or baseball. There, if you do good, you know someone will buy you up. This is a sport where everything is not up to how you perform."

At 24, Viso is in his second season with HVM Racing, an operation that used to belong a generation ago to Tony Bettenhausen.

Viso's predecessors include Helio Castroneves and Patrick Carpentier. A team with modest success and modest dreams -- none of which is easily realized.

"Sometimes you have a big name like some of the guys in IndyCar and things come to you without a big effort," Viso said. Everybody else better come with a big chequebook.

An IndyCar ride is often bought as much as it is earned. Teams routinely require drivers bring sponsor money.

"If you've done well in the past it's easier to raise money. But it's a circle that never ends. You need the money to be able to perform well but you have to perform to get the money," Viso said.

It costs $2.5 to $12 million US to run an Indy Racing League car. That means Viso has to play businessman, be public relations wise and understand marketing as he is hustling constantly to fund his ride.

"You just have to understand that a driver is not just a guy who is going to sit in the car and drive as fast as he can. We need to do many things," he said.

A title sponsor on one of the major teams might pay $6 to $8 million. A driver such as Viso, still looking for his first podium in 25 starts, has to do with more modest backing. A small promo sticker might set a company back $50,000.

"Pretty much all the time I'm not in the car I'm trying to think of how to raise money," he said. "You just have to live with it. How well you do raising money is directly related to your success."

That success has come in small doses.

Since finishing sixth at Sonoma, Calif., last August, he has been involved in five accidents and had four mechanical failures, including a broken suspension, a gearbox failure and an air gun malfunction. Sponsors don't like seeing their cars in the garage.

"Yeah, not all of them look at the big picture but you've got to live with that and try to make them happy," Viso said. "The sponsors need to know it's a risky sport."

On the plus side, he has seven top-10 finishes, and said that coming into the Toronto race: "The team is getting better and we've got more speed now than we've ever had."

He also signed Herbalife, a nutritional company, as a major backer just before the Indy 500. "There's a big difference between the small and big teams. That's why being a small team like we are, every small achievement is extremely rewarding. We have to scratch and claw to get the same results that bigger teams get every race."

There was a fourth-place finish last year at the St. Pete's Indy race and he finished seventh last week at Watkins Glen. As podiums go, he remains 0-for-25, but for drivers such as Viso, being a professional racer, always will be about more than winning, or losing.

"Sure I want to win, to finish -- I'm going to push very hard but what's important for me is to leave the race knowing that I have done my best," he said.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos