By Aaron Waldron
Like bowling, cycling, golf, tennis, and more, motorsport is - by nature - an individual activity. After all, with very few endurance racing exceptions, there’s only one driver.
As with the professional athletes and participants in those other sports, racers are often associated with sponsors - sometimes personal sponsors, but more often by brands that sign on to sponsor the entire organization that employs the driver. The driver might be one small part in a team of manufacturers, engineers, mechanics, designers, and those sponsors, but it’s the man behind the wheel who has the opportunity to win trophies, make headlines, and collect the glory. Everyone else is just along for the ride.
If you watch golf, tennis, or bowling, you might have your favorite player - and you probably wouldn’t care if that person dropped his Titleist clubs in favor of Callaway, traded his Nike sneakers for a pair of Reeboks, or shunned his Brunswick balls when he started using Columbias.
In team sports like baseball, football, basketball, etc., it’s usually the team that fans latch onto. You might find San Francisco Giants fans that begrudgingly acknowledge Clayton Kershaw’s filthy curveball, Miami Heat fans that will still admit Lebron James is talented, and football fans who really only care about the players on their 25 fantasy teams, but most enthusiastic spectators of “stick-and-ball” sports stick with their favorite franchise no matter how much the roster turns over.
Many forms of motorsport fall in the middle. You’ll find Formula One fans who are Ferrari lifers, as well as those that have followed Fernando Alonso’s ping-ponging across the paddock. Some motocross fans won’t care what color bike that James Stewart rides, while others won’t cheer for anyone not sitting on a blue Yamaha. Legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans modified their tattoos when he switched from the Budweiser-sponsored Richard Childress #8 to the Rick Hendrick-owned Mountain Dew (and now Nationwide) #88, but Ford’s drag racing faithful was left speechless when John Force Racing switched to Chevy.
RC racing isn’t just vulnerable to similar feelings from both sides of of the fence when it comes to a racer swapping sponsors, but major drivers moving between manufacturers can have economical effects that are perhaps larger than any other form of racing. Unlike the brand name on the side of their favorite NASCAR driver’s car, which may or may not be a product a NASCAR/motocross/F1 fan uses in their home (I don’t shop at Lowe’s often, nor do I drink Red Bull or smoke Marlboros), RC racing fans are both emotionally as well as financially invested in the brand names they support - if you have a Brand X car, you probably want to see Brand X’s pro drivers do well. Throw in our current mess of “sponsored” drivers, and the force of brand loyalty roots itself further and further into the RC racing community.
Editor’s note: if a 50%-sponsored driver changes his shopping habits and doesn’t post it on social media, did he really switch? Okay, enough jokes.
It’s for that reason why notable RC racing champions switching sponsors can be the biggest stories in the industry. In just the last year, RC fans have either rejoiced or lost their minds over stories like Ryan Maifield switching from Team Associated to Team Losi Racing, Adam Drake moving from Team Losi Racing to Mugen Seiki, Naoto Matsukura going from Yokomo to Kyosho/Tamiya, and Tekno RC snapping up Ryan Lutz and Joe Bornhorst from Team Durango and Serpent. Just this past week, Team Associated and Carson Wernimont parted ways halfway through the young Worlds podium finisher’s first season with the team, marking his third complete chassis sponsor swap since December of 2013.
Nothing lasts forever. There’s not one major champion of RC racing that sticks with one set of sponsors for a career - in fact, many of the most successful drivers (both in terms of either race wins or salary, or both) are the ones who switch the most often.
Every time a notable RC driver changes teams, waves of rumors and crazy comments defending either the driver (“those cars were awful anyway!”) or the manufacturer (“I heard he was an egomaniac”) or neither (“who cares? both suck!”) hit the shores of social media. Press releases and statements are issued, and fans take sides.
No matter how strong your opinions may be, or how close of a friend you think you are to someone who thinks they were involved, very few people are ever privy to the relevant information that leads to these decisions - and even fewer know the full extent of both sides of the story. It’s like one person who commented on our Facebook said: “it’s half true, half bull----.”
The truth is, there's a lot that happens behind the scenes that none of us get to know about. Pro-level team drivers assist professional engineers with developing projects that can cost the company in the millions. Racers with radically different personalities can be asked not only to put next to one another, but work together. Sometimes, a manufacturer may only have enough prototype parts for some of their drivers - leaving the team to make the tough decisions of who gets them and who doesn't, and expecting those who get left out to suck it up and deal with having perhaps a lesser chance of performing well (and potentially earning a larger contingency check). Sometimes drivers and manufacturers enter into deals with different expectations and goals - it happens. And in the rare case that a driver simply bails for a higher paycheck - wouldn't you applaud a friend of yours for doing the same thing in pretty much any other industry?
Whatever the backstory might be, it’s only natural to react. Some RC racers may sell their old cars or start buying different tires in an act of loyalty to their favorite drivers, but many others will label them traitors (or “traders,” which is even more hilarious). You might be bummed that the guy that has answered your questions on social media no longer uses your favorite product, or you could be thrilled that your favorite brand might have a better chance to win a major race. Either way, there’s a racer who’s trying to do the best for himself (and often his livelihood), and a company that’s trying to protect itself - financially, operationally, even sometimes legally.
Speculation can be fun - and being a fanboy can be fun, too - but while RC racing (and Internet flaming) is a hobby for most, it's still a career for some.