Is racing a technique to be studied and learned—a high-speed intelligence test? Or it is just a testosterone dare among risk-seeking deviates?
Most of the dramatic movies I’ve seen that had a racing theme have taken the latter view. Racers are presented as helpless speed addicts who heedlessly go faster and faster until they are either killed or badly injured. In the “badly injured” variety, the fallen madman is gently guided back to health and a sane desk job by the devoted wife or girlfriend. In the fatal versions, we are left with the usual profound social message that speed kills.
In the 1955 classic, “The Racers,” Kirk Douglas portrays just such a misguided, trivial sportsman. In a tense scene, he and a rival are neck-and-neck on a long straight. They look daggers at each other. Rivalry! Manly secretions! Can foolish actions be far behind? Then, the camera shows us one driver’s foot. He presses down on the accelerator! His car surges ahead! Pure excitement!
The dark look on the rival’s face, made demonic by goggles, says, “Oh, no you don’t!” The camera shows us his foot, as he presses down even more. Egad! First one car, then the other leads in see-saw fashion. So exciting.
And completely fake.
Sensible persons know that all competent racers have the throttle fully open as soon as traction permits, but in these movies, going fast is presented as a dangerous sickness—an approach conflict like that of the hungry lab rat who wants the food pellet but knows he may get a powerful shock as he approaches it. The crazier you are, the faster you go.
This phony Hollywood view of racing determines what spectators want: a constant back-and-forth of the lead, preferably among a crowd of machines.
Racing isn’t like that. As recently noted by Repsol Honda MotoGP Team Principal Livio Suppo, the strongest team can afford to hire the top riders and attracts the biggest sponsors. As a result, strong teams tend to become ever stronger, and the gap between the strong and the weak becomes larger (NASCAR is an apparent exception, but racing on ovals with near-identical cars is a specialized form).
Now, remember the old story of the northern California promoter who in the 1960s decided to create an “Ascot North” (Ascot Park near Los Angeles had an extremely competitive and popular half-mile dirt-track series at the time). The riders arrived to find the usual argument: Riders wanted more hay bales covering guardrails or concrete walls, and the promoter wanted to keep the five bucks that 10 more bales would have cost. The riders were ready to leave in disgust when one of them had an idea.
“Why don’t we just put on a show? We’ll ride around, play grab-ass and trade the lead back and forth. Then, at the end, we’ll share the prize money. No risk, no problem. And the promoter gets to keep the gate.”
That’s just what they did. And the spectators loved it, completely taken in. People said it was the best racing they’d ever seen.
Will the day come when racebikes will be given a “push-to-pass” power boost as in Formula 1—an extra five horsepower that can be clicked in at will? Might this be linked by radio to a keyboard in the race-direction office? Then, as rival makes and riders begin the straightaway side-by-side, they may accelerate, trading the lead in phony Ascot North fashion, as a pair of official fingers in the tower dance on the keys. Spectators will love it.
Who knows, one day, motorcycle racing here in the U.S. might become as big as pro wrestling.