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Of Bread and Circuses

I’ve been a fan of Formula One, and racing in general, since my earliest days.

I’ve been a fan of Formula One, and racing in general, since my earliest days. Tutored in the subtleties of road racing by my brother Bill (who had an all too short association with CART in the late 1980s), and caught up in the almost evangelical fervor of Ford’s Total Performance push in the 1960s, I became hooked. My Dad would bring back stories from his trips to Ford’s proving grounds in Kingman, Arizona, of various Ford GTs hitting 200 mph in testing, or of the next big thing as it made its way around the track. It was a wondrous world and a wondrous time.

It also was a dangerous one. Four months before my 10th birthday, three-time F1 World Champion Jim Clark—a hero of epic proportions—lost his life in a meaningless Formula 2 race in Germany. Years later, American Peter Revson died in a crash while testing the American Shadow F1 car. And nearly a decade after that tragedy, Gilles Villeneuve—a towering talent more in tune with the greats from the 1930s—lost his life in practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at the horrible little track in Zolder.

And there were many others. Too many, in fact, and from all levels and regions. Slowly, and thanks in large part to the efforts of three-time F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart, safety improved to the point that death and injury became rare instead of commonplace. Only when Ayrton Senna died in 1994, the same weekend as Roland Ratzenberger met his fate, did the racing community feel shock approaching that felt when Clark died.

My interest in racing had begun to wane before Senna’s death, and continued to diminish in the years to follow. Though I still watch racing on television and continue to follow F1, my weekends are just as likely to be spent doing other things. NASCAR? It’s like basketball. All I need to see are the first 10, middle 10, and final 10 laps of any race. The rest is boring, especially with its gaggle of aero-matched cars differentiated only by their head light and taillight decals, and running in tight bunches as though putting on a good show was the same as racing. NASCAR may sell laundry soap (or Viagra), but anyone rooting for Ford over Chevy, each over Dodge, or hoping for the domestic automakers to trounce Toyota in 2007 should get a clue. These cars are as interchangeable as Lego blocks.

I don’t buy the excuse that television, and the short attention span of the viewer, necessitates manufactured competitiveness any more than I believe that the combined budget of each team in F1 should exceed most small nations’ GDP. Or that technology is the reason folks tune in to watch Michael Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya, et. al. crank out 200 miles at speed in less than two hours. Technology, in fact, may be one reason the World Rally Championship has grown over the years, but it is more likely that viewers—especially those coveted 16 to 30 year-olds—relish the hand-to-hand combat of man and machine against terrain that is both spectacular and dangerous. Only, I fear, rallying too will suffer as more technology and more corporate sponsorship makes its way into the sport.

Sport. It is at the core of racing, and far removed from the needs of the marketing folks in Detroit, Dearborn, Stuttgart, Maranello, or wherever. But as long as the central spirit of racing is hidden under mounds of spin and money, the victories won’t matter. And the fans will come and go with their fleeting brand loyalty until a better circus comes to town.

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