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A pay driver is a driver for a professional auto racing team who, instead of being paid by their car owner, drives for free and brings with him either personal sponsorship or personal or family funding to finance the team's operations. This may be done to gain on-track experience or to live the lifestyle of a driver in a particular series when one's talent or credentials do not merit a paying ride. It is sometimes called a ride buyer or in sports car series a gentleman driver.
Pay drivers are common in many of the feeder series of motorsport, particularly in the GP2 Series, Formula Three, NASCAR Nationwide Series, and the Firestone Indy Lights. However, there have been many pay drivers in top level series like Formula One, Champ Car, Indy Car Series, and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
At one time F1 regulations regarding the changing of drivers during the course of a season were extremely liberal, which encouraged some teams to recruit a string of pay drivers to drive their cars, sometimes only for one or two races. Frank Williams Racing Cars (the predecessor to Frank Williams and Patrick Head's highly successful Williams F1 outfit) were particularly prolific with regard to the number of drivers they would use in a season - ten drivers drove for the team in both 1975 and 1976. Because of this the rules on driver changes were subsequently tightened.
Teams willing to accept pay drivers are often at the back of the grid and struggling financially. While a pay driver often brings an infusion of much needed funding, their terms often require share ownership and/or influence in the team's operations. This dependence can also be harmful, should a pay driver threaten to depart and pull funding after an acrimonious relationship. This could leave the team worse off than before, as previous poor results could make finding a sponsor difficult. One case involved the collapse of the Forti team after wealthy Brazilian driver Pedro Diniz left Forti and took his family's sponsorship money to Ligier after the 1995 season; Forti withdrew from Formula One after the 1996 German Grand Prix.
Former Formula One drivers Ricardo Rosset and Alex Yoong were notorious for how much money their families spent to finance their F1 racing careers. They or other pay drivers like Giovanni Lavaggi and Jean-Denis Délétraz are usually associated with poorer performances compared to those with paid drives. Diniz was backed by his family, but throughout his career he managed to score some decent results compared to the other pay drivers of the age, scoring 10 championship points over six years (two top-five finishes and six sixth-place finishes, when only the top six drivers scored points, unlike the later eight and ten of today; he would have 24 points-scoring finishes using the 2013 system), when many other pay drivers did not score any.
However, many successful drivers, such as multiple F1 world champions Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, also started their careers as pay drivers but gradually worked their way up the racing ladder. Niki Lauda borrowed money against his life insurance to secure drives in Formula 2 and Formula 1 before impressing enough to have his debts cleared by BRM and then Ferrari. With the exception of Lauda, it is to be noted that they were regarded as highly talented and promising drivers before their F1 careers commenced, and were funded by manufacturers rather than family money or companies with no racing interest.
But the term pay driver is harder to define nowadays. Many of the so-called pay drivers in F1 today come with good racing records. Vitaly Petrov, Sergio Pérez, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna are all GP2 race winners, drivers with their records usually move up into F1 anyway. The fact that they can bring backing just make them more attractive than their similarly-qualified rivals.
Some sanctioning bodies will offer champions of lower tier series a well-funded ride for the next tier. The Road to Indy programme from INDYCAR awards a ride fully funded by Mazda for a series champion in the next tier. A $150,000 and tires package is available to a Skip Barber Racing School champion for F2000, while the National Class champion of the F2000 will receive an engine at no charge for the overall class. A driver who wins the U.S. F2000 National Championship will win $300,000 to be used for a "pay ride" in the Pro Mazda Championship, and two sets of tires per race. Pro Mazda winners will be paid for a ride in Indy Lights, and the Indy Lights champion earns $500,000 to be used for an IZOD IndyCar Series ride, but is raised to one million US dollars if the team is not in the Leader Circle bonus money program.
Pay drivers are also common in stock car racing and are very prevalent in development series such as the Nationwide Series and ARCA Racing Series. There are also several pay drivers competing at the Sprint Cup level including Michael Annett and Paul Menard; the latter has seen a fair amount of success with a victory at the Brickyard 400 in 2011.
- "NIKI LAUDA". ESPN F1. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
- Caroline Reid and Christian Sylt (5 January 2011). "The return of the pay driver". ESPN.
- Pay as you go, go, go: F1's 'pay drivers' explained BBC. Andrew Benson.