Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alex Lloyd -- What if You Conquered the World, and No One Noticed?

(story originally published in December 4, 2007. Photo shamelessly "borrowed" from but I don't think they'll mind.)

The scene was pathetic, even by post-Split Indy standards – a dashing young driver, in a new bright-red driving suit, standing next to a beautiful woman in a nearly-empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway press room moments after his greatest victory. As I walked into the press room, I met Alex Lloyd, the Indy Pro Series driver who'd just dominated the Carb-day race at Indy, who would soon be signed by Target Chip Ganassi's IRL team. What if you conquered the world, and no one seemed to notice?

By any standards, Alex Lloyd is a great guy. Reporters find themselves having a great interview with him, and before long, a great conversation, and then quickly becoming friends. Ask him a question, and he'll give you an answer... and another answer... and then ask where he can find a good babysitter so he can take his wife out to dinner. He's that type of guy – friendly, down to earth, smart, the guy you'd want as your best man at your wedding.

You'd also want Alex to be a driver if you owned race cars. In 2007, he won 5 poles, 8 of the 15 races in the IPS season, leading 399 of 751 laps, winning the championship by a huge margin. And, he did that running for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, not exactly the highest-dollar operation in Indianapolis.

None of this should come as a surprise, as Alex is the guy who had epic battles with Lewis Hamilton when they were younger. “At age 10 I started racing go karts, and at ages 12 – 13 I was racing with Lewis in karts. I've got lots of videos of him and me dueling at the end, with me winning some, and him winning some.”

They met up again in the UK Formula Renault Championship in 2003. By 2003, Hamilton was a prodigy in the Williams camp, who sent him to learn in the feeder series with their full backing. Lloyd, on the other hand, was running for a financially challenged team, but lead Hamilton in the points until the middle part of the season. He finished second to Hamilton in the points, despite winning their last race. “I'm kinda frustrated with that season” said Lloyd to AR1, still wondering if a fair fight in equal equipment might've changed those results.

He was still good enough to win a two-day shoot-out at Silverstone for the 2003 McLaren Autosport BRDC (British Racing Drivers Club) Award, which is given annually to the most promising young Brit driver. This gave him both an F1 test at McLaren as well as people who championed his career -- guys with names like Nigel and Jackie.

So why would a nice Brit like Alex Lloyd be on this side of the pond? Part of the reason is that no deal came together for Lloyd in Europe. He was unable to find financing for GP2 or World Series by Renault. In spite of being one of the two winners in the auditions for A1GP's Team Great Britain for 2005-2006, he was passed over for a string of unsuccessful drivers. If American fans think that our drivers need to have big wallets and inside sugar daddies, they should catch a glimpse of the brutal politics of F1 and the F1 ladder system.

Through his contacts in the BRDC he came to the USA, first with a successful test in a Champ Car Atlantic ride, then to give it a go in the Indy Pro Series. In 2006 he won the IPS support race for the USGP at Indy, and then moved to Sam Schmidt Motorports for 2007, where he ran away and hid from the entire field most of the year.

The problem, of course, is that the IPS got no respect. The list of drivers moving from the IPS to the Big Show in the IRL, who don't have the last name of “Foyt” or “Andretti,” is pretty short. If Lloyd had dominated a NASCAR Busch race at Darlington instead of an IPS race at Indy, he'd been surrounded by a hysterical mob, and his name would have been on the lips of every NASCAR fan. Instead, there he was, in a nearly-empty press room, with the few reporters seemingly more interested in his very pretty wife than in what he'd just accomplished – he'd become the only racer in history to win Indy races on both the F1 road course as well as the famed oval.

Fortunately, 2007 was the year that IRL teams got involved with the IPS. For the first time, winning drivers are coming to the IRL, with Hideki Mutoh joining Lloyd in the promotion. “This year the series really grew” observed Lloyd, “Last year you had no opportunity.” On October 18, Target Chip Ganassi Racing announced that Lloyd will be running a few of the IndyCar Series races, and perhaps some GrandAm Sports Car races. Sponsorship has yet to come together -- “But it's still early..” added Alex, confident that sponsors will be found. Alex takes pride in Chip's constant refrain that he only hires the best drivers available at the time – and this time, that is him.

And make no mistake, Alex wants to be in the IndyCar Series. Specifically, he wants to win the Indianapolis 500. He'd watched the Indy 500 on TV, but really was hooked when he saw it live. “When you've run in the IRL, you've run at the highest speeds, on all sorts of tracks – ovals, road courses, and street courses... The Indy 500 is still the best race in the world.”

More to the point, he wants a good life for him and his family. “In F1, it's easy to forget that you've got the best job in the world. In F1, you hate your teammate, you don't talk to anyone on another team, you can't trust anyone.” And, one doesn't bring their kids to F1 races either -- “I remember the press criticizing Juan Pablo because he was seen in the garage area with his son, and the press and F1 community said that he'd lost it, that he no longer was dedicated. Family is not accepted in F1.” By comparison, drivers' wives and children have always been a part of Indy car racing. “All the drivers look after each other” commented Alex as I noted a large community of ex-patriot Indy car families living in the Indianapolis area.

Perhaps that is the most likable part of Alex – that he knows that long after a driver is only a comment in Indy 500 historian Donald Davidson's notebook, their sons and daughters will remember the kind of person they really were. “I think that having a family is making me a better driver now – I have a whole family to take care of, who depend on me.” And then he continued -- “One of the toughest parts is to find a good babysitter...”

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Driver's Responsibilty Tax - Debtor's Prison

(originally published on on 5 Dec 07.)

If you ever need an example of the evils inherit in big government, just look at the State of Michigan's "Driver's Responsibility Fee." Initially labeled as a tax on bad driving, instead it has turned out to be a tax on poverty, stupidity, and sloth.

It also has forced people onto welfare roles, drug dealing and prostitution as they try to pay staggering tax bills from the Michigan Dept. of Treasury.

Somewhere in the waning days of the GOP-dominated legislature, our legislators tried to come to grips with their budget deficit without cutting spending. Having spent the Tobacco Settlement, and pledged "no new taxes" to voters, they forced to look for new sources of revenue if they wanted to continue their spendthrift ways (free notebook computers to kids?!?!).

In 2003, the Republican Senate leadership borrowed an idea from New Jersey. Sen. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, proposed a "drivers responsibility fee" (a TAX) for drivers who had more than 7 points on their license, plus another $50 for each additional point. When the dust settled, some offenses -- drunk driving for instance -- had a $2000 fee, plus the points on the license.

This effort went unnoticed, or perhaps even heralded, since no one wants to see drunk drivers get off lightly. However, it soon became clear that the tax, like the original tax in New Jersey -- where it is called "debtor's prison -- was flawed.

The worst of the problems started when people failed to pay for a ticket, then had their licenses suspended for non-payment after 30 days, then were caught driving on a suspended sentence.

Consider the case of Amy (not her real name) who struggles more than the rest of us. Divorced from an abusive husband, she was once hospitalized for depression. She's trying to raise 3 kids, and even took job training at her local community college.

She could not afford to pay a $65 seat belt ticket, and her license was suspended for failure to pay after 30 days. She was caught driving on a suspended license, and that $65 ticket cost her $690, which was paid by her mother.

Sadly, she thought that her license was reinstated when she paid the $690. A local officer saw her
driving the next week, pulled her over, and informed Amy that it was still suspended from the first series of offenses.

She spent the night in jail, and this round added another $625 to that bill. The $65 ticket now cost her $1,315.

Worse yet, the State of Michigan has a "Driver Responsibility Tax." In Amy's case, the State of Michigan taxes her an additional $1,000 for each of the next 2 years. That $65 ticket now will cost her $3,315.

Even if you have no sympathy for Amy, you should have empathy for your wallet. In Michigan the number one determinant of poverty and unemployment is the lack of access to a car. Amy has lost three jobs because she doesn't have a license. She now lives on welfare, with no hope of paying the remainder of the $3,315 which will reinstate her license.

Amy's case is not at all unique. I've talked with women who resort to turning tricks to pay off their fines, as the Michigan economy prevents "just work harder" solutions. One man owes over $2000 for tickets and Driver's Responsibility taxes for driving without insurance -- he was the designated driver, the vehicle belonged to his drunken friend, and there wasn't insurance on that vehicle. For the record, he's driving illegally, without a license.

The Driver Responsibility Tax is just that -- "taxes", not "fines." Most who are so taxed are people like Amy, who simply couldn't afford to pay a ticket. It's a tax on poverty and sloth, not on bad driving. It's a draconian tax that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas.

One party claims to be the party of the "little guy, the poor, the oppressed." The other party claims to be anti-tax, anti-big government, and pro-work. Sadly, both are addicted to the estimated $100 million that will be billed to drivers (some of which don't even live in the USA!) and refuse to fix this situation.

One quick fix would be to change the law so that a license suspended for non-payment of tickets isn't "suspended" in the same way that it's "suspended" for criminal actions. This would eliminate most of the immediate problems. The second step would be to have an appeals process, where people (like Amy) who won't ever be able to pay the money can get a "pardon" of sorts.

Of course, the real fix is to reign in the size of government, and kill the thing entirely. In my opinion, the GOP gave us this bad law, and we should be the ones taking the lead in fixing our mistake.