Lessons From Racing

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.

83 thoughts on “Lessons From Racing

  1. I was at Watkins Glen when Stewarts partner Francois Cevert was killed on the Saturday before the race in a practice round, His car dove under the barriers on the esses after it was tapped by another and he died of massive injuries. It was expected Stewart would get his 100th win there and retire, Instead, the Tyrrel team pulled out. that was 1973. a dangerous sport.

  2. I disagree with a good deal of that but the important thing to agree with is the fact that “they have managed to make racing boring” so true. For the mass appeal in anything there must be a dumbing down, a packaged approach to sell to the average mentality.
    Moto GP is were you will find real men of daring. Then after that, for racing excitement World of Outlaws sprint car racing. I have been a racing fan since watching my Dad race in the early 1950s’ when men were men and frequently died. As my Brother said “after being in WWII, racing was easy, no one was shooting at him”
    “the point of the show…” The Great Ayrton Senna once said “F1 is not a show, meaning that F1 is a race, ..deadly serious.
    1950 was the first year of an F1 championship, prior to that it was called “Gran Prix” racing. I think Alberto Ascari was the first F1 champion?
    This last bit is from memory so I may be incorrect?

  3. Family was in the racing business and ran a USAC Championship team for several years. The turning point for Indy was the carnage in ’73. The outboard tank was eliminated and wing size reduced. Problem was taking on close to 80 gallons of fuel shifted the balance of the car and the use of airfoils for downdraft got way ahead chassis innovations. Loss a few degrees of “bite” and the car was gone. Witness what happened to Swede Savage, Pollard and Criss that year. The other problem was the Offenhausers with the solid head could take almost unlimited boost pressure with enough fuel. USAC finally cracked down. Funny story about Stewart. We were watching Chris Economaki and Stewart getting ready to do a story on the invisibility of methanol flames right outside our garages on Gasoline Alley. They had a bucket of fuel and the idea was for Economaki to soak a rag and light it while Stewart narrated. Unfortunately, he splashed a bunch on his pant leg and also set himself on fire. Stewart saw the heat waves and we were treated to the spectacle of Stewart dousing Economaki with a CO2 extinguisher. Was always impressed to see how those guys could total a chassis in practice and be right back out in the backup car the next day. They earned every bit of respect. That’s why we still remember their names.

    • My first race was the 73 Indy 500, on the third day they finally got it run, as a kid. I saw the Savage accident, and also saw a crew member die, hit by a truck speeding to the scene. I’ve had a fascination with the sport ever since. On the amateur side, going to the Mitty weekend in Atlanta is a great time.

  4. Part of the excitement of auto racing is the growling of the internal combusion engines. Wait until we have electric car races, and all you hear is the tires and a whirring sound.

  5. If you want to watch real racing the way you remembered it, go watch Finish winter rally. Or, if you’re not a snow person, you can find a nice shady spot over looking a farm road in France. Either way, someone’s bound to end up with a tree through the windshield, or an out of control Renault in their living room. And there’s always the odd spectator who gets hit for standing on the wrong side of the curve while he’s waiting to roll someone back on their wheels.

    If you go, be sure you have a cooler full of beer and a tow rope!




  6. The most exciting racing going on today: Goodwood Revival & lawnmower racing. Look em up on youtube it you haven’t seen them. Very exciting, Sorta nuts. Just like the old days.

    I miss guys like Danny Ongais.

    • Our nickname for him was “Danny On-the-gas”. He broke more cars than anyone else. He cost Teddy Field a lot of money.

  7. What you’re describing is what I call the revenge of the nerds. See that guy in the corner in your 7th grade class? The guy free of social skills and testosterone, buried in books? We now send him to school and without any real world experience make him a ‘Manager. ‘

    His definition of a perfect human is a robot. Hence all technological development is geared towards replacing humans rather than enhancing them. Even the empowering aspects of the PC are being negated.

    All predictable as the road to hell.

  8. A lot of the daredevil sports grew out of the fighter pilot cadre that returned after WWII, where being inured to danger was a necessity and many of these men became adrenalin junkies. In many ways, these occupations also became surrogates for the fitness gauntlets of our ancient evolutionary past. Eliminate the danger and you eliminate the mechanism that makes us stronger/better.

    • When you don’t get Adrenalin fixes in daily life, you need to find them where you can, in reasonably socially acceptable ways. Many sports and hobbies allowed one to find that Adrenalin fix, and they slowly are being whittled away, even as video games and policical shouting matches provide a pale substitute.

      For the real deal in racing, go watch a dirt track sprint car race on a Saturday night. By far the best in Southern California is at Perris Auto Speedway. You can find something similar pretty much anywhere in the country if you look for it, but it is sort of a secret society.

      My personal racing bucket list is down to one thing, to pilot a dirt track sprint car. Cory Krauseman’s school is in Ventura, I hope it survives the fires.

        • Because it is where I live and what I know. Where do they run dirt track in your neighborhood?

          I think it is also important for people to know that California is a whole lot more than Jerry Brown, Berkeley, Hollywood, and illegal aliens. But they are all wearing us down a bit around here. California is politically and culturally dominated by a minority of rich and powerful weirdos. The rest of us find ways to put up with with all the crazy.

      • @Dutch
        Up here in WI less than 20 miles away is the Slinger Super Speedway. Long before I started going there the regulars were Dick Trickle, Allan Kulwicki, Robbie Reiser and even Dale Sr. among many many more. Later on Kenseth got plenty of experience there and Jr. and several other names were putting rubber down at special events. It’s hailed as the fastest 1/4 mile banked oval in the world. I enjoy it.
        For anybody that’s possibly interested in the future it’s about 35 miles nw of Milwaukee right off of I-41. Figure 8’s are always the last race of the night!
        Good times.

        • There is so much great racing at the local tracks, all around the country. Perris is the best thing going around here these days, a big clay dirt half mile that goes uphill in the first turn and downhill in the back turn. The Agajanian family runs it; they are the ones that used to operate Ascot in Gardena, a legendary place back in the day. Always important to get people coming out and filling the stands, keeping the fields full, and the lights on. These subcultures matter.

  9. There’s no science to finding the right balance, but some middle ground between authentic risk of death or severe injury vs plain carnage is needed to make a sport exciting. The principle Z’s talking about here is also playing out in the NFL where they’ve basically gone to two-hand-touch tackling when it comes to quarterbacks and wide receivers. NFL fans aren’t tuning in to see players break their spines any more than NASCAR fans are hoping to see dozens die in a massive pile up. But there has to be some risk to make it interesting.

    • Yes. Catching a pass over the middle used to take tremendous courage. The play was always there, but taking a hit from Mel Blount or Jack Tatum was the price you paid.

    • Hemingway said that only auto racing, bull fighting and mountaineering were sports. Everything else were just games.

  10. NASCAR is failing because of demographic change and the inability of racing to reach out to People of Color (the future)

    NASCAR needs to shed its offensively white veneer if it hopes to survive

    • NASCAR and IndyCar lost their way because they are spec series that are great racing, if you are in the driver’s seat (nothing like one-upping the other guy IN THE EXACT SAME CAR), but you lose all the creativity and independent achievement of each driver and team. The back stories become how so-and-so overcame being fired from a team or coming back from a bad accident. In the old days, it was about making something out of nothing. Parnelli Jones and Agajanian, Jim Clark and Colin Chapman, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, or Bruce McLaren building and racing their own cars, Mark Donohue and Penske, Pearson and the Wood Brothers versus Petty. Now it is arrive and get in the seat. Tony Stewart is about as close as you can get to old-style AJ Foyt, but it is not the same thing.

      • Though the thing that Penske did to USAC was move in the really big money, which chased a lot of smaller teams out of the business. He went to full chassis changes each year and phase out of the Offenhauser in favor of Cosworths rendered millions of equipment obsolete in a few years.

        • Every successful racing series, sooner or later, gets “that guy” who professionalizes it away from the (relatively) little guys. Every time. You have to catch the trip because the destination is always something other than what most people would like to see.

          • It foreshadowed the later schism that led to the IRL/CART fiasco. And it “wrung out” all the personalities like Foyt, Rutherford, Andretti, the Unsers etc that made it interesting.

          • And the specialty car builders such as Vollstedt and Gerhart, Watson and Kurtis, and those special Offy engines.

    • What’s stopping a black entrepreneur from putting together a black racing team, or even better, hoodrats day at demolition derby? Answer–you always expect white people to do it for you.

    • Greg: Car jacking and inner city auto theft combine the best of road course racing and NHRA if the said stolen car does not have a clutch for the chimps to fret about. It just is not a tier one sport…..

    • You really don’t understand the discussion, do you? It doesnt matter what color you are to perceive / experience that motor racing, in pretty much every category of racing, no longer excites due to the dull sameness that characterizes most every driver / car / team.

  11. I remember AJ Foyt, pretty much breaking any rule he wanted with blatant disregard. The story of him getting out of his formula 1 car after winning a race and a nitrous oxide bottle falling out of his pants right in front of a bunch of race officials, then laughing about it to boot, is great. These days you have nepotistic mediocrities like Dale Earnhardt Jr. reciting standard PC gospel to the masses, NASCAR caving to shakedowns by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson, and of course, vapid bimbos with a profound lack of self-awareness dominating headlines with their 15th place finishes.

    Not too shocking that pro-racing is in the toilet.

  12. Formula 1 used to be about driver skill and bravery as well as a good team. Now the cars are the same, the teams are about the same, and the drivers all hit the limits of the car and track at about the same point – so the races are boring as hell without much passing. Indy and NASCAR are going the same way.

    Taking some of the tech out of the cars would be a good start – require manual transmissions (real ones with clutches, not the paddles), and get rid of all the onboard computers. Make it a test of driver skill again.

    Rally is more fun to watch because the environment is less controlled.

  13. Thanks Z for the memories. I’ve been a race fan for as long as I can remember. My parents (yes mom too) use to take me, age 7 or so, to Shaheen’s (sp?) in Springfield Illinois on Saturday nights in the 1950s to see the 1/4 mile dirt boys. One of our neighbors had a jalopy that he slowly destroyed one summer. And we went every year to the Illinois State Fair to see the USAC champ cars and stockers on the mile dirt track. For years we followed USAC, then Champ Car etc, plus Nascar and F1.
    But my true love was drag racing cause I could participate at a lower entry point. Nowadays I only watch F1 and NHRA. F1 is still fun to watch, especially qualifying. And we go to NHRA national events when we can as one can get right up to the cars, crews and drivers.
    NASCAR and Indy Car, not so much. Spec cars and spoilt brats.
    Thanks for a great post.

    • Where I grew up, a drag strip was reasonably close by. There was a dirt track too. That was where poor boys could go and test their mettle. In my teenage year I got a chance to drive a sub-9 second Vega. There’s not much like being hurled down track. Going around a corner at the absolute limit is right there. Having a gun pointed at you is all that I can think of that is close to the same thrill. I bet bull riding and rodeo is a similar thrill. Maybe hang gliding.

      • Firefighting did it for me. The moment when you take the door and make the turn in with the nozzle that is pure adrenaline and fear.

      • Go to O’Neill rally school in New Hampshire. I used to do some entry rally racing as a teenager. You will become excellent driver in winter climate or on dirt road too. O’Neill trains SF troops, Secret Service and others for “loose surface” driving (snow, dirt road). I did the rally car + high center gravity vehicle since I have pickup truck and drive on dirt road. Lots of fun.

  14. Committees are great if you need to keep something already off the ground in the air. They absolutely fail if anything unexpected happens that requires improvisation.

    re: Track Day Bro. These days, it’s about DIY and 24hrsoflemons. You don’t watch it, you do it. Who cares about NASCAR or F1.



  15. Dude, thanks for the trip down memory lane! The set was made by AFX, I got one for Christmas in ‘74. I had several cars and would take them apart, find out which magnets were strongest by how many bb’s they would lift, then build the best for use in the 70 Charger ;).
    Later in the decade they had fancy stuff like ‘squeeze’ track that would derail opponents or flex track for custom layouts.

  16. Racing used to be about wearing the colors and making a stand. Now it is a 3D version of a video game. I ran most weekends for almost 30 years, late models and sports cars. Walked away ten years ago and never looked back. Part of it was that I got older and it is a young man’s game. But a big part of it is that all the driver inputs are measured and calculated, like a video game, and very little of it is holding tight and hanging on any more, like riding a galloping horse.

      • Will they have a robot audience? Because I can’t imagine watching for more than 5 minutes unless there are some spectacular crashes. Maybe the crews can try to hack the other teams’ cars and wreck them.

        • Toward the end of the 19th century, as a publicity stunt, a major western railroad invited one and all to witness the direct high-speed collision of two locomotives. It was very well-attended. The absence of engineers did not suppress attendance, at any rate not in such a way to disappoint the promoters. So I think you are wrong; driverless cars – operated at a distance, the way Barney did in a great Mission Impossible episode – would rule, as all disaster porn does, by freely allowing ‘catastrophe’ without the death and anguish that no one likes to think about.

          It wouldn’t surprise me if the ChiComs explode a nuclear weapon over one of their planned and sadly empty cities, and broadcast it worldwide: It would be awesome, and claim a record TV audience.

          • The train collision was a novel thing at the time. People were easily entertained. We don’t need this any more because we have Russian dash cam videos on YouTube.

      • Yeah, but – hell’s bells, Z – what kind of ponies are we talking here for those damned things? 700HP? That’s more than enough to kill you and all us fan boys too, LOL! At some point we gotta agree on what the rules of the game are. And yes, it is okay (in my books) if Z kills himself pushing himself past his limits. The problem is – is it okay if he takes three or four of us guys out with him when he goes?
        And – not to be a nanny, but do we want our sons seeing their fathers remove themselves from the gene pool like that? Maybe it’s just me, but I saw those guys getting killed too and it did nothing for me as a spectator. I know there’s people out there that thrive on it and if I recall, Spike TV used to have ‘people getting hurt doing stupid chit’ shows and some of the fellas ate it up. Maybe if we really want bloodsport… we should bring back gladiators…?

        • Glen,you are a fine and gifted man, but you miss the point. Balls-to-the-walls racing is exactly what makes the adrenaline flow through the racer, and those who watch him,wishing to be there in the driver’s seat. The noise, the smell of racing oils, the burnt rubber. It’s in the blood. Spectators too. Shared rush. The great racers who made motorsports what it was were unemcumbered by the latter-day bubble-wrappers. Yes, good men (and spectators) died when something went horribly wrong. That’s life. Yes, safety precautions should be in place. We get it. But the stranglehold of lackluster corporatism that governs everything from the vehicle to the driver makes today’s racing sports boring. BORING. No, don’t want to see blood and guts ala your gladiator reference. But shit happens. And brave men who do ballsy stuff know it.
          Life is a risky thing,less so in Western world, where our progressive overlords & ladies never stop squeezing every last drop of testosterone-fueled fun out of everything that makes life fun and enjoyable.

          • I’m an ex-pilot (failed, ultralight) … and I’ve gotten old. Sorry folks, I forget sometimes that others are young with blood that runs hot. I’ve crashed pretty much anything you can put an engine on. Seen friends and acquaintances killed because their number came up, or maybe Darwin, Murphy, or God decided it was somebody’s time up. Seen the cripples, the widows and kids… It gets old too. I like boring engines that run and nobody ever gets hurt.

            And – if I were your age I’d be telling this older version of me to get stuffed too! Living on the edge is great, but dying there still sucks.

          • And – having said all that… I just realized it’s guys like me driving this shite! Goddammit, it’s infuriating!

            Just so ya know, our intentions are good. We worry and love you kids. It’s so easy for people like me to forget you guys gotta do what ya gotta do just like we did.

            When did I turn into this ugly old man I see in the mirror? Must a happened last night… while I was sleeping…

  17. Reminds me of the saying that the military’s job is to Kill People and Break Stuff. Everything else is just busy work.

    • But now that women are ubiquitous in the military, we’re going to have to Kill People and Break Stuff in a polite and fair-minded way.

  18. Holy fuhrerprinzip, Batman! Make that four things Silly Mustache Guy was right about: autobahns, the dangers of smoking, the coolness of German Shepherd dogs, and the Great Man Theory of History. I preemptively denounce myself.

  19. I have someone ask me how Formula 1 is “relevant” today with environmental damage of cars. I tell him every innovation in cars comes from Formula 1. If you know the automobile this is indeniable.

    Now we have this shit hybrid engine, Formula E (all electric). PC has infected the pure pursuit of velocity, performance and endurance. And the fans losing interest, TV ratings down. Just like ESPN going to the grave because of PC.

    WE. DONT.GIVE.A.SHIT. Not everything must be politics. Thank God we can still buy 500 hp Mustang Shelby with real manual transmission. All European sports cars have two-pedal Dual Cuck Tranny (DCT) instead (if ou like cars you will get this joke).

    • Those Nascar hillbillies are Scientists Gone Wild. Testing to deststuction.

      A friend whose racing career was ended by the Vietnam draft said of both, “You’re never really alive til you’re on the edge of death.” He tried to describe the Zone, it’s mix of surreal calm amidst hyperreality at terrifying speeds.

      • When you are in the “zone”, everything happens in slow motion unless or until something goes haywire, then things happen too fast to comprehend. I think it is some form of the brain and senses weeding out almost everything superfluous when things are going as planned, so you can easily stay on top of things, but being overwhelmed with new and transitory unfamiliar inputs that come at you very fast when things go wrong. Racing is a “reaction” skill set, and you just can’t react quickly enough with the proper responses when things get weird.

        • Racing is becoming like the NFL: Parity Ball instead of football; this applies particularly to whatever NASCAR has become (RE: tech advancements: when CART re-joined IRL the rules structure of IRL destroyed the “no limits, at any cost” phenomenal tech development going on in CART).

          Speaking of karts (not CART), back in the early ’70s it was possible to go much many fast for (relatively) very little money. Once the wrench wizards got a handle on the Italian rotary valve engines that started replacing the American-made reed valve engines in the late ’60s, some pretty amazing horsepower numbers showed up: the leaders in C Open class turned in 166 mph at Pocono one weekend, 176 at VIR a monthor two later. That’s all gone now, too; C Open hasn’t existed for years, B Stock is as fast as it goes now, which is over 40 mph slower.

          • We were getting 1000 hp out of Drake Offenhausers on the dynos at Indy in the early 70s. With head design you would feed 90 inches of boost. Leo Goosen who designed the DGS series was a genius.

          • I was getting about 420 HP from a Ford 2.3Ltr turbo 4 running N02, the scary part was it was installed in a Cub Cadet lawn tractor. It was frightening, and great fun. I ran it for a while at a local lawn tractor race series. My friends used to take it for a spin every now and then, my lawn suffered greatly. No N02 for the friends.

          • Try new Ecoboost Mustang. Me, from Europe, I always take the V8 because it is forbidden fruit. But new Ecoboost uses high pressure fuel injection and turbo for 320 hp “stock” on engine brake dyno. On rolling road dyno, probably close to that at wheels…ECU tune and exhaust you are over 400. Reminds me of old Japanese Nissan 200SX turbos.

    • Was around the business as a kid. Racing has always been the test bed for all sorts of innovations. Everything is tested on the track.

  20. At a guess I would say the car game was Scalextrix. Had loads of the stuff when I was younger. Formula One was the thing to watch with all those big name players jostling for position.

  21. Danger is the greatest
    motivator, illuminator, entertainer, and teacher that ever was , it’s ability to focus ones thoughts is second to none. Remove danger and lots of staying up late and thinking up solutions goes out the window.

    If it isn’t dangerous there is a good chance it isn’t fun. This is the main reason most entertainment created by women is boring , with a few obvious exceptions.

    • There really is nothing like the feeling that comes from knowing failure is disaster. My bet is I remember ever single time I was in such a situation. I even remember some from when I was a kid.

      • This surely explains the attraction of the combats in the ancient Forum. Failure there was unequivocally disaster.

  22. Real men like to blow up things. Everyone else is in the bunker. Women want the bunkers to be nice.

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