The Top 10 Most Manipulative Figures in Motorsports
Manipulation, however you want to characterize the word, is one of the traits of any great leader. Those in power must be able to take control of the situations put forth in front of them and alter them to their own advantage. This skill, perhaps more than any other, is the hallmark of somebody destined to run the show in their chosen interest.
The problem with manipulation is that it's a very negatively charged word. But let's be frank—any leader that you've ever admired or respected has been an incredible manipulator. Such is the case in motorsports as well. The following ten personalities, ranging from team owners to head honchos, have carved out their niches by taking charge of various situations and altering the outcome in their favor.
All of these figures are, or recently were, among the most powerful in their respective series. Simply uttering their name will cause blood to boil in some fans, or lead to an endless string of praise from others. Without further ado, and listed alphabetically:
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As Dale Earnhardt's team owner for much of the Intimidator's career, Childress developed a taste for winning. The owner-driver pairing took six championships together, the most controversial coming in 1990. After Mark Martin won the second race of the season at Richmond, Childress complained that a spacer plate on Martin's car was oversized and illegal; NASCAR agreed and penalized Martin 46 points and he would lose the championship to Earnhardt by 26. It was later admitted that the part was bolted, not welded on, and not technically illegal, and cost Martin what would have been his only title.
Luca Di Montezemolo
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The man in charge of the Ferrari Formula One team, di Montezemolo established the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) in 2008 as a way to give the teams as a collective more influence in the negotiations of the Concorde Agreement, their contract with F1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone. When 2010 F1 regulations displeased most of the teams, di Montezemolo helped put together an impressive 17-round calendar for an alternate Grand Prix World Championship. The power play worked, as the teams were able to come to an agreement. Di Montezemolo vacated his position as chairman in 2010; he pulled Ferrari out of FOTA earlier this month.
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Considered by some a madman, Ecclestone worked his way up from Formula One team ownership to overarching control of the sport after shrewdly selling television rights in the 1970s. Now 81 years old, he continues to exhibit quite a bit of power due to his finances, managing the administration of each race on the F1 calendar. Part of Ecclestone's knack lies in his exploitation of anything for publicity; when he was brutally mugged in 2010 for a Hublot watch and some jewelry, he lent a picture of his face (featuring bruises and a nasty black eye) to Hublot for a print ad, proclaiming "See what people will do for a Hublot?"
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The third generation of the France family to run NASCAR, Brian France took over the CEO and chairman positions of the sanctioning body in 2003. Since then, he has pioneered the invention of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, brought in a multi-million dollar title sponsorship from Sprint/Nextel, and sold the sport's television rights to Fox, Turner, and ESPN for over four billion dollars. While fans criticize France for failing to provide an environment in which the sport can sustain a compelling on-track product, his work to globalize the sport reaches far beyond the wildest dreams of his father, Bill Jr., and grandfather, NASCAR founder Big Bill France.
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Ganassi-owned cars are among the top of the class in just about every major motorsports division in North America. He's won the past four IZOD IndyCar Series championships, three of the past four Rolex Sports Car Series titles, and recent wins in NASCAR's most prestigious events, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Ganassi's adamance against spec cars in the future of IndyCar helped lead to the sport's decision to create a new "safety cell" for 2012 and beyond that can accept multiple "aero kits" that alter its appearance and handling.
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George founded the Indy Racing League in 1994 as a way to promote American drivers and oval racing in North American open-wheel racing, something he felt CART was not adequately doing. Starting in 1996, the IRL took the Indianapolis 500 and a handful of other races off the CART schedule, but "the split," as it is called by rueful open-wheel fans, damaged both series to a point where the sport is still struggling to recover. The IRL won the war in 2008 as the Champ Car World Series (CART's successor) folded into it, but at a great cost to both series; many of the top teams of the 1990s and 2000s either have folded or operate at a reduced capacity.
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An innovator as a driver (he designed the Gurney flap on cars' rear wings and brought full-face helmets to open-cockpit racing), Gurney also proved highly influential as a team owner. In 1978, he wrote an open memo to USAC open-wheel team owners, now known as the "Gurney White Papers," that suggested owners take a greater role in controlling their racing series, citing dissatisfaction with USAC leadership. The next season, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was born, and it lasted until 2003, when crippling losses of a handful of top teams and multiple failed promotions forced it to declare bankruptcy. Gurney himself pulled out of CART in 1986 and only competed sparingly since.
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Open-wheel racing in North America largely follows wherever Penske goes. When he joined CART in 1979, the series quickly established itself as the superior alternative to USAC. When he left CART for the Indy Racing League full-time in 2002, it spelled the beginning of the end for the owner-led organization. When he raised concerns in May of this year about introducing multiple aero kits for IndyCar's new Dallara safety cell in 2012, the series relented and pushed them back to 2013. Robin Miller has called Penske "the smartest guy in the room," and seeing as the Captain succeeds just about wherever he goes, it's usually a shrewd move to listen to him.
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The owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc. controls some of the top tracks in the United States, including Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Bristol Motor Speedway, among many others. Almost every major form of motorsports has used the majority of his tracks at some point, with roughly half of the NASCAR schedule taking place on SMI property. When the city of Concord annexed Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2007 to prevent Smith from building a drag strip to go with the 1.5-mile oval, he threatened to shut the speedway down; the city subsequently relented.
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Whitmarsh has run the McLaren Formula One team since March of 2009, after taking over from Ron Dennis. Whitmarsh also runs the Formula One Teams Association, a position he inherited from Ferrari rival Luca di Montezemolo in 2010. As the man who controls both F1's largest unified organizations (not all teams remain in FOTA, as Ferrari and Red Bull have left) and one of its most prestigious operations, Whitmarsh is one of the few figures in the sport with the ability to challenge czar Bernie Ecclestone.