ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 51 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

I Stopped to Smell the (Plastic) Roses
and Was Blinded by the (Lava) Light
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

Or Thoughts on Momma Gump's Box of Chocolates

Forrest Gump's Momma was really onto something when she said that life is "like a box of chocolates." So in my opinion is motor racing. Okey dokey, let me reach into the box and...

To most who frequent these pages here at Atlas F1, naturally F1 or FEM for Formula Ecclestone/ Mosley as it is known to cynics is their choice as the Alpha and Omega of the racing universe. The world revolves around the 17 events held to decide the FIA World Driver's Championship. Indeed, F1/FEM is much like a neutron star or black hole, a force so powerful that it literally blots out light and pulls everything into its center trapping it there. The F1/FEM testing sessions, the practice and qualifying sessions, and the races themselves are now major media events in the sporting press at least in Europe and some other places. F1/FEM today is an industry in and of itself.

Then there is CART which I reckon still stands for 'Championship Auto Racing Teams' which is one of the two major open-wheeled series in the United States. The other is the IRL the Indy Racing League. This schism is entering about its sixth season and probably has little hope of any resolution in the immediate future. Then there is the NASCAR the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Winston Cup Series. It is in the United States what F1/FEM is to Europe: the Neutron Star. Things being what they are, in the United States CART is a distant second, but still has a good following. Without the Indianapolis 500, there is no IRL. And attendance and interest in the Indy 500 is on the wane lately. So who knows?

Then, as they say, comes the rest of the cast. Here are but a few: the European F3000 series; the various F3 series in Europe; the Indy Lights; Barber Dodge; the Trans-Am; the American Le Mans Series; the Grand-American Series; Toyota Atlantic; the NASCAR Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck Series; the World Rally Championship; the Motorola Cup Series; the Sports Racing World Cup; the FIA Grand Touring Championship; the British Touring Car Championships; the World of Outlaws; and a host of other series which most of our devoted readers have never heard of much less have any idea of what the series is about. All in all, the box is full of an interesting variety of chocolates.

I am not one of those who considers F1/FEM as his personal Alpha and Omega. Yes, the heresy of heresies, much like the Pope saying at the Easter Sunrise Mass that he is really a Lutheran. But, I'll get over it. My intent is not to disparage F1/FEM, but remind you, Dear Reader, that there Life beyond and before F1/FEM. I like a great variety in my box of chocolates. This is not going to be a condemnation of F1/FEM, although in truth that is exactly what it was in the early drafts.

I think it is evident that I prefer aged chocolates much as I prefer cheeses and wines with a bit of time on their side. I am also given to bouts of reflection about the present and by extension, the future and the past. History is often puzzling at best and merely baffling and confusing in its normal state. At its worst, it is the excuse proffered to justify the inexcusable.

One of the tricks of history as all professional historians learn and re-learn to their dismay is that history adheres to the concept of the 'random walk' that is, future performance cannot be inferred with any level of certainly from past performance, particularly in specific cases. That is a nice way of saying that the past while influencing the present and the future does not dictate the events or the narrow path of the future. This is a concept borrowed from the usual mumble-jumble of the economists who in turn stole it from the behaviorists who derived it from the their work in game theory and who in turn used the work of the statisticians as the basis for their work.

I mean to say is that while history often gives us clues and most importantly cues about our world, it isn't called gambling without good reason. How we got here with F1/FEM as the neutron star of the FIA is not something which could have been predicted with any accuracy a decade much less several decades ago. The highly orchestrated, tightly scheduled, thoroughly professional, high pressure, uniform, insular, consensual, and minutely structured world that is F1/FEM where budgets are measured in tens and hundreds of millions of US dollars is a far cry from the slightly chaotic, individualistic, casual, and yet rather professional series it is derived from, where budgets were miniscule compared to those of today. Not all change is bad, and not all things past were good.

As I have watched motor racing develop in my lifetime I saw my first race in Atlanta, Georgia at Lakewood Speedway in 1949 I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the current approach to racing in many series, but particularly F1/FEM. It is perhaps unfair to single out F1/FEM, but who said Life was fair?

As I alluded to earlier, F1/FEM is akin to a neutron star, blotting out all the surrounds it. The last time this happened to this extent was perhaps when the German auto-makers Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union strangled Grand Prix racing to death in the late 1930s. While many refer to this as the "Golden Age of Grand Prix Racing," I have to say that one needs to take that with a few grains of salt. As the German teams rolled over their opposition, the number of entrants on grids as well as the number of events began to dwindle.

In 1934 there were 37 events of varying quality and quantity for Grand Prix cars. There were approximately 200 drivers whose names appeared on the entry lists for these events, along with an amazing 20-plus different marques also being listed. In 1937, there were 23 events for the Grand Prix machines and 20 for the Voiturette machines compared to eight in 1934. In 1937, the number of names on the entry lists was in the neighborhood of about 180, not too far off from 1934, but the number of marques was up to almost 35, thanks in some part to the Vanderbilt cup race on Long Island. In 1939, only seven races were run using the Grand Prix formula, with 55 names on the entry lists. Notice that I did say starters, only that the names were on the entry lists. As for the marques in 1939, it was reduced to nine. The Voiturette machines had 15 events that season.

Any of this mean anything? Perhaps nothing profound, but whereas in the far, distant past the Voiturette cars usually stepped up to the plate and kept things going as it was to do for the 1952 and 1953 seasons it seems that isn't happening today. Or the sports cars provided the show instead. Today, it is rare to find much said apart from some incident that gets the attention of the media about other series besides F1/FEM or NASCAR's Winston Cup or CART. The Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hour race continue, but not without some sense of an identity crisis to some extent. They are institutions with traditions that are perhaps finally becoming vulnerable.

Le Mans is simply Le Mans to most who cast an eye in its direction. Sports car racing it still alive and kicking, but its health is questionable. There seems to be a significant lack of stability in this form of racing, although it still has a decent following. Indeed, from its post-war inception at Watkins Glen in 1948 (Thank You, Cameron Argetsinger!) until the late-1970s, road racing in the United States was dominated by sports racing cars or racing sports cars take your pick with CART only making an in-road into this arena after over a decade of effort which saw F5000 stack arms after the 1976 season.

Interesting, but the race at the Indianapolis Raceway Park circuit in 1965 won by Mario Andretti, was the first National Championship since the Vanderbilt race of 1937 to be held on a road course and both were won by rear-engined cars! Also, few remember that the last few seasons 1974 to 1976 of the F5000 in the United States was co-sanctioned by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and USAC. Indeed, there was much speculation about a possible a possible merger of the SCCA and USAC in the late-1970s, but it appears that is about all it turned out to be, especially after the death of much of the USAC leadership in an airplane crash in 1978. Keep in mind, that from the 1979 until the 1982 seasons that both F1 and Indy car racing were in some form of turmoil.

Pardon me as I look at another piece of chocolate, but a few words about the National Championship are in order. Although the record books use 1909 as the starting date for the first AAA National Championship sanctioned by its Contest Board, that is really the case. The first season that the National Championship was contested was 1916. The first champion was Dario Resta who won the title after battling with John Aitken and Eddie Rickenbacker during the 15 events held that season. There were no championships for the three years 1917 to 1919 due to the Great War. After the war, the 1920 season saw Gaston Chevrolet emerge as the posthumous Champion with Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy in the runner-up positions.

In 1927 and later in the 1954/1955 period, there was the creation of AAA "champions" for the years 1909 through 1915 and 1917 to 1919. As can be imagined, this still has things in a bit of a tizzy and some confusion still seems to exist about all this. While these efforts were obviously well intended, this is an example of when historians can really muddy the waters. Keep in mind, however, that there was indeed racing during the 1917 and 1918 seasons even as the war was being fought. As in 1919 season, these races were run almost exclusively on board tracks. In a revision of the events counting towards the National Championship for 1920, some historians or statisticians added events that result in Chevrolet being stripped of his National Championship! To the best of my knowledge this was first done about 1927, but then accepted by others.

Imagine the FIA doing the same to create "champions" for the seasons prior to 1950 or adding events to years when the championship was held that alter the outcome retroactively! Suddenly Fangio is the Champion for the 1950, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, and 1957 seasons; or Moss is now the 1958 Champion; or Clark wins the Championship from 1962 through 1965. Perhaps Ascari would add 1949 to his championships of 1952 and 1953. Or the FIA determines champions for the 1921 to 1934 seasons, and 1946 to 1949 as well. Hey, you never know what might be in that piece of chocolate that Mosley or Ecclestone or their successors chump down on...

Last look into the box of chocolates. It might be anything but a surprise to realize that there is not an organization at least one we can find devoted to the history of motor racing. Here are several organizations which are for general automotive history or are for members of the press, but nothing for historians looking into the box of chocolates for the pieces of history. The establishment of Watkins Glen Motor Racing Research Library now the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen in the Summer of 1999 along with the creation of the formation of The Nostalgia Forum that Winter stirred an idea deep in my soul.

One of my personal goals is the establishment of the Society for Motor Racing History. Several folks are working with me on this endeavor. We think it will come to fruition sometime in 2001. One of my objectives is that it be like Momma Gump's box of chocolates: lots and lots of variety. I don't want it to become fixated on Grand Prix or Formula 1 or Grand National or Champ cars or whatever. It should encourage and promote research into all these areas. I want it to be a society that is inclusive and not exclusive in the sense of the subject matter.

Right now there really isn't a mechanism to bring together racing historians working on diverse topics, but all centered on recording some aspect of racing history. The likelihood of a manuscript getting into print is really very slim. There is a new wrinkle in all this, the web. While I am now a practicing member of the "virtual press," I am also someone whose life has been devoted to books, magazines, and journals. However, the ability to use both the "bricks and mortar" of the Research Center at Watkins Glen and the dynamics of the internet lead me to believe that we are onto something here. I have credit Phil McCray at Watkins Glen for helping me form my thoughts on this adventure. Also Dennis David and Gil Bouffard from the Nostalgia Forum are two of the many who share this vision and are I hope! working on our initial draft for the Society.

Then there is this:

This discussion is going in a great direction. As Gil [Bouffard] mentioned, we do already have a Society of Automotive Historians. It's an active group that has a broad interest in auto history and indeed does not normally get involved in racing history. Thus the idea of a focus on racing, like the Nostalgia Forum, does seem like a good idea.

Web-wise, what it should somehow be able to do is maintain information on a database on specific topics that can be accessed by members. In this Forum we develop some very interesting themes and materials but with the passage of time it becomes disjointed and less accessible. In a Society context it should be possible to have basic indexes like drivers, cars, circuits and races cross-referenced chronologically so that we gradually accumulate information on specific topics. This would not include the (sometimes interesting) chat and by-play that clutters the strings. We could start by mining the great material that has been supplied to this Forum.

In other words, our goal should be to start out by exploiting the potential of the web to create something suitable for the 21st Century.

Karl Ludvigsen

Hey, if someone like Karl Ludvigsen doesn't think it is too crazy, maybe we stand a chance. As we move forward with this effort, we will keep everyone informed. I am not exactly sure where we will end up with this, but I always figure that the journey is as important as the destination. Keep an eye on this space...

See you!

Links and related information:

Don Capps - The Library

The Society of Automotive Historians

The Atlas F1 Bulletin Board Nostalgia Forum

The Watkins Glen Motor Racing Research Library

Don Capps© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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