Atlas F1   Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

The Nature of Grand Prix
and Formula One Racing
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

Random Thoughts, Rambles, Comments, and Musings

I was recently thinking - I think musing is a better word - about racing as I drove down and back to South Carolina over the holidays. We passed by both the Darlington and Rockingham tracks, places where I have seen a number of races over the years. They managed to flip-flop the start/finish line at Darlington recently and build even more grandstands to hold even more people. And Rockingham barely resembles the same place that I saw in the Fall of 1965 (ouch!) when Curtis Turner captured the first Grand National race that was held there.

There isn't a track in Columbia, South Carolina, anymore - it cut back its racing programs in the early 70's when the shift went to the larger tracks and for good by end of the 70's - 1977 to be exact. It was paved in 1971 and never quite the same place to me. The "dirt" at Columbia was so different - almost as if it were paved, that for years Firestone used to make a compound for Columbia and a few other similar tracks. I got to watch Ned Jarrett tire test for Firestone a number of times. A factoid: the first Grand National event held under the lights was at Columbia in 1952. How about that?

Then there were the tracks at Hartsville, Sumter, Greenville-Pickens, Spartanburg, and in North Carolina the Fayetteville, Raleigh, and Wilson tracks. These all held Grand National races and are now gone and mostly forgotten. I do mean to find something more on the track that hosted a race in Sumter in November 1904 - a 3.625 road course in the Deep South. And then there were the races at the Walterboro airport where the Briggs Cunningham team showed up and showed everyone what road racing was all about in 1954 and 1955 when it was a 2.0 mile circuit; it was expanded to 3.5 miles for the 1956 - 1959 races.

So, what has this to do with F1? Well, I also thought about Reims, Clermont-Ferrand, Pau, Montlhery, Pescara, the San Remo, Bari, Naples, and Leghorn street circuits. As well as the old Nurburgring, the old Spa-Francorchamps, the old Silverstone, the circuits around Barcelona, and the old Monza. I tried not to think about the "new" tracks. That is too painful to even consider.

I then thought how much I had seen racing change with my own eyes and how easy it was for me to understand pre-War (the Second World War for the younger fans out there) racing since it really wasn't all that different from was still being done in the 50's. It is easy for me to feel sympathy for those who are new to F1 when they encounter fossils like myself. Relating the current F1 to that of 20 years ago is a stretch, but quite possible. Trying to gain a sense of what F1 racing was like in the 50's and 60's for someone who has been following the sport for only a few years has got to be very, very difficult. It is just so different and so unlike today's well-oiled and stage managed events.

As the Grand Prix formulae have evolved over the past century, the results have not always been as intended. Some were successful, the 3-litre/1.5-litre formula of 1966 to 1985 and the 2.5-litre formula of 1954 to 1960, but some were mixed such as the 1.5-litre formulae of 1961 to 1965 and 1986 to 1988. The problem is that unlike some sports where the format has remained essentially the same for many years - football (both soccer and the American version), American baseball, cricket, rugby, golf, tennis, and horse racing - motor sports and F1 in particular has evolved enormously over the past decades. While you could still easily participate (or spectate as the case may be) if you were plucked up by a time machine and plopped into a football (soccer) match in the mid-1950's that wouldn't be quite the case for a motor race.

The use of television to broadcast F1 races in a standardized, predictable way to fans spread all over the globe has made its impact in the number of people who now follow F1 with at least some degree of interest. And it has been a considerable impact, although despite the efforts of the F1 Administration under Bernie Ecclestone not as significant in the US as the FIA would like. Why? There are lots of reasons, of course, the timing of many of the races as they are shown live in the US being one that stands out.

Let's be honest about it, most casual fans of a sport are not going to roll out of bed at some early hour on Sunday just to watch a race. The dedicated few - accent on the word "few" - will, but most won't bother. Besides, it is obvious to most Americans trying to get the hang of F1 that the focus is not on the American fan. It makes it a bit easier to understand why Fox tries to standardize the time and boost its rating by showing the races later in the day.

Formula One in the US it is still a niche sport. Indeed, the new television deal that NASCAR has worked out might have some positive aspects for F1, believe it or not. Fox might get in the habit of doing promotions for its F1 races and announcing F1 results during its NASCAR broadcasts. This alone has to be worth at least a few more points in the struggle for viewers.

However, will they come back if they see a series of lop-sided races? Can the current formula be tweaked just enough to get and keep the attention of the casual US fan? Will a return to slicks, getting rid of some of the driver aids, increasing passing opportunities and generally making F1 more "fan friendly" do the trick? Of course, all this now sends the purists through the ceiling. They want the maximum in technology and the more the better. Others see this as a "dumbing down" of the sport to satisfy the masses. Still others feel that should only be one major form of racing and that is F1, period. If they appreciate it for what it is, screw 'em.

Actually, F1 could probably sail right along without the US and never skip a beat. Although the US Grand Prix in September will probably get a big crowd, the trick will keep them coming back or tuning in. A 90 minute sprint race that sees no one in the first several positions actually pass for position will get old after a few times. I am sure Tony George is praying for something akin to Reims in 1953, or Monza in 1964 or 1967 or 1969 or 1971, something that will be exciting and produce an unexpected result. And he should also hope that the Brickyard 400 and the Indy 500 cover the losses he will take.

Although the return of the US to the F1 ranks is nice, it doesn't pose any threat to the position of NASCAR as the premier form of US motor sport. Although that title should go to CART, the sad fact is that until its rift with the IRL is resolved and the series gets some other kinks ironed out, NASCAR is the Big Kahuna in the US.

One of those kinks is the Indy 500, of course. Another is the lack of focus at times in how CART is presented on television. The current television package is in need of some doctoring which also points back to the real lack of clout that CART and the IRL have in the sports establishment in the US. NASCAR has started to crack that basketball-football-baseball-hockey barrier and get some decent coverage. Even the Washington Post carries race reports on NASCAR now, a far cry from the past. That one of the most successful coaches in the NFL, Joe Gibbes, now owns a NASCAR team has done a lot to help give NASCAR - and motor sports in general - a boost with the traditional sports writers.

I am hoping that we are spared lists of drivers, races, cars, and whatever else for awhile - a long while hopefully. I found most to be barely worth the effort to read much less to take serious. Apparently, the only truly great racing drivers have been those from the past decade or so. At least that is what I am lead to believe from the dozens of lists in various magazines and the web would have me believe. Besides, who really cares? Or who can really judge? As I stated earlier, the very nature of racing has changed so much over the past several decades to say nothing of the century as to make it almost impossible to compare beyond just very limited periods, and definitely not even by decades.

I think that the almost complete focus on only the events within the Drivers' Championship, especially prior to the mid-70s, distorts the view most have of the drivers, the teams, and the sport. It is one of those Orwellian sorts of things where the races just never seemed to happen since they aren't listed and so they aren't important.

Excluding the British airport circuit 10 lap sprints for F1 cars, there are a number of events that if included into the full F1 record of some drivers add a new dimension to them. Although he never won a championship event, Jean Behra did win a number of non-championship events, including a win over Ascari at Reims in 1952 when both Ascari and Scuderia Ferrari were at the best. And Bruce McLaren won a race at Reims in 1962 that was a championship event in everything but the points. Just one of my favorites gripes whenever I see a supposed "history" of F1, which almost all seem to start with 1950 even though the formula itself dates from 1947...

Well, that's it for this week. Keep those cards and letters (okay, emails) coming, folks.

Don Capps© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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