When I was a little boy, Jackie Stewart, the great F1 driver, was a household name, despite the fact Formula One is mostly a European thing. I no longer recall the brand, but a toy maker used Stewart to sell a slot car toy set. As a kid, that seemed like the greatest toy imaginable. Open wheel racing was a big deal in the 70’s. It is fair to say it was the golden age of open wheel racing. My family was not into racing, but we watched the Indy 500 every year and some of the F1 races that would be broadcast in America.
There is a great documentary on Formula One that covers the rise of the sport after the World War II, especially the outlandish danger that was a feature of the it well into the 1980’s. Even if you have no interest in racing, it is worth watching. The men who raced in the 60’s and 70’s were incredible personalities and incredibly brave. The film is primarily about how the sport evolved from a deadly spectacle into a safe spectator sport. It mostly uses vintage footage that really brings the feel of the age home to you.
The point of the show is that the sport of racing, not just at the highest levels, but at all levels, was outlandishly dangerous and unnecessarily so. The track owners could have installed safety items like barriers and emergency medical services, but they saw no profit in it. The team owners were only concerned with winning races, so they put no effort into make the cars safe, beyond what would aid the drivers in finishing races. The racers, chasing glory, developed a cavalier culture and proudly accepted the dangers.
This turned out to be an increasingly lethal combination. Even though it was never said, the track owners knew the paying public was attracted to the sport, in large part, because of the wrecks. The car builders did not want to see wrecks, but it was to their advantage to make the cars as fast and light as possible, which meant eschewing safety features like fire suppression systems. The drivers, like all dare devils, had an incentive to take risks, as this is what made their reputations. The result was increasing carnage.
It reached the point where fatalities were so common, the drivers began to organize in order to force the car builders and track owners to improve safety. That’s where Jackie Stewart came into the mix. He was the most famous driver of his day and he took the lead in organizing the drivers and demanding safety measures. The real advance in safety came when Bernie Ecclestone gained control of the TV rights. He was one of the first to realize that TV was going to be the lifeblood of sport. Control TV and you control the sport.
It is a good lesson that is applicable to all aspects of society. At some point, someone has to be in charge and have the final word. The claim that different interests will organically work as a system of checks and balances is true only in theory. In reality, it takes a strong leader to marshal the competing interests toward a common goal. This is where the arguments against great man theory of history fail. There may be multi-generational forces at work, but it is the great man who is the inflection point of history.
It has not been all wine a roses for Formula One racing since Ecclestone seized control of the sport. Having one man run things means, inevitably, his interests come to dominate, to the detriment of the whole. What made car racing attractive to adventurous young men was they could test their wits and courage against others. The homogenizing effects of F1’s corporate governance is slowly killing that spirit. So much so that the greatest name in racing is threatening to quit, unless there are changes to how Formula One is governed.
This cookie cutter approach, that comes with rule by middle manager, is what is killing NASCAR. Television viewership for stock car racing in America is in decline and the tracks are seeing lots of empty seats. The labyrinth of rules governing the building of cars has removed one of the cool aspects. That is, redneck ingenuity at finding loopholes in the rules and clever new ways to go fast. Now, the cars all look the same, the drivers look the same and the familiar PC bullshit is being injected into the sport.
This is another lesson that is applicable to our age. Human beings are designed to be curious about the world. Men in particular are by nature inclined to test the limits, challenge the rules of life. By directing all energies toward safety, predictability and profitability, racing is managing only to make itself boring. Most young people today could not name a single race car driver. Forty years ago, when I was a boy, even red neck Americans knew the big names in Formula One. Those were men who you could admire.
Committees are made up of people who naturally fear the world. They desire to put every animal in a cage, have ever blade of grass the same height and make sure tomorrow is exactly the same as yesterday. That’s what has happened to racing. it used to be ruled by quarrelsome men led by an alpha male. Now it is run by bureaucrats, disappointed that they never became postal clerks. Of course, there are scads of women showing up to preach the gospel of multicultural lunacy. That never ends well.