By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Jay won the winter series championship, but he was unable to find a sponsor. Like more and more racers, Jay would have to spend his own money to continue. He'd need 100,000 pounds to continue. He didn't have it.
Jay was finding a fundamental change in car racing, where those who can put up money themselves are likely to continue. The problem, many say, is the lack of rules about team ownership. In nearly every other professional sport, there are qualifications to become a team owner. You typically have to prove you have business success to back a team. In car racing, owners can scrape together enough money to buy the cars and then demand that its drivers either pay to race or bring their own sponsors.
With the recent fall of the American automobile industry, things got tougher for car racers. "That hurt motorsports more than anything else in more than a century," says Jason Rittenberry, CEO of the Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter. Ford and General Motors had always put engines, research, and millions of dollars into racing at all levels. When the car companies tanked, they drastically cut contributions to motorsports.
"The overall theme across the industry is that the sport is in decline," Rittenberry says. "The trend is new and wouldn't have happened before the economy crashed. Young drivers may not be as talented, but if your family can help get you a sponsored car or can write a check, you're going to have a ride because of the financial pressures the teams are under."
In 2004, Jay figured he'd try his luck in the United States. "I had talked to some people, and I was under the understanding that whether you're white, black, green, blue, whatever — people like winners, and I thought maybe there'd be less politics involved," Jay says.
He flew over in July 2004 to try his hand at a minor-league Indy race in Sonoma, California. He won and caught the eye of Sam Schmidt, a team owner. "I don't have money, but I'll do anything — I want to fucking win," Jay told him.
Over the next two seasons, Jay won two minor-league championships and was named rookie of the year in two different leagues. In 2008, IndyCar team Roth Racing signed him to the big leagues — he'd be racing Indy cars. Jay walked into the Indianapolis Speedway for the Indy 500, helmet in hand, for a warmup. At the pit, he got the news: Another driver, John Andretti, nephew of Mario Andretti, could pay for his own ride, and Roth Racing was replacing Jay for the race.
It was supposed to be a one-time thing. But the team owner stopped returning Jay's calls. And Andretti kept racing his car because he could pay his own way.
The next year, Jay was back in a feeder series, racing for the rookie team from Palm Beach International Raceway. After five races, he was again replaced by drivers who could bring their own sponsorship dollars to the table.
So Jay hired an agent. He put together a media package and got a sponsorship deal from Tire Kingdom for the 2010 IndyCar series. With a sponsorship in hand, he joined a racing team headed by Sarah Fisher, an Indy racer and start-up team owner.
Jay's past championships intrigued Fisher, but asked whether she would have signed him if he didn't have a sponsor, she replies, "That's tough. I went down there and sold our team to them, you know? It wasn't just Jay saying, 'We have the money — let's go racing.'"
But Tire Kingdom's sponsorship didn't pay for everything. The company agreed to cover only five races. So even though Jay had won more than 30 races and three championships, he became an anomaly in American sports: a part-time professional athlete and coach for hire.
Jay meets Tristan at 10:30 on a Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's only two weeks until they leave for the National Karting Championship in Indiana. The track sounds like a lawn mower and smells like a gas station as cart racers begin practicing nearby. The raceway looks like a deserted parking lot, dotted with a few painfully decorative trees surrounded by weeds. Boys who need haircuts run around their fathers, everyone with a bandaged knee or elbow. "All drivers must have a neck brace," the loudspeaker blares. "I repeat, all drivers must wear a neck brace."
Tristan stands with his green and white jumpsuit half-unzipped, the shirt-half and sleeves hanging around his waist. He wears a rib protector over his T-shirt like a vest. It looks like a flak jacket made for a child soldier. When Tristan hops into the car, Jay walks to the gate, stopwatch in hand.
Tristan began racing about two and a half years ago in borrowed carts at the Homestead track. One day, his mother, Diane Nuñez, was standing with an old friend — "Uncle Jim" — who suggested Tristan ought to have his own cart.
James "Uncle Jim" La Vea is an heir to the Annenberg media fortune. Tristan's father, Juan, met La Vea when Juan was on the pro tennis tour in the 1980s. La Vea was financially supporting tennis pros Monica Seles and Mary Joe Fernandez as an unofficial sponsor in exchange for tickets. After retiring from the circuit, Juan became a tennis pro in Boca, where La Vea hired him to coach the girls he was sponsoring.