Auto Racing

Automobile racing is one of the most popular games people watch. During 1974, big and small circuits in the United States pulled in an estimated 48 million spectators, almost 1.5 million more than the year before, and more than watched any other sport with the exception of horse racing, which offers the added lure of pari-mutuel gambling. Major league baseball, for instance, drew 31 million fans last year (about 300,000 fewer than in 1973).

For many years, the Indianapolis 500 has been attracting the biggest crowd that annually comes together for any purpose in America: more than 300,000 spectators. That is three times the number who attend the Super Bowl, and almost twice the size of the Kentucky Derby crowd. Several other car races regularly bring in more than 100,000 fans.

Who are all these people? Middleclass adults are much in evidence at car races, but usually only at major contests. Car racing for the most part draws a young and predominantly blue-collar crowd, lumpy-knuckled. short-fused, simple folk, who turn on to speed and risk.

The prospect of fiery, metal-tearing crashes is ever present. Racing combines the grim fascination of the Circus Maximus, the panoply of the medieval joust, and the chanciness of Russian roulette. To aficionados, it is the ultimate test of man and his machines. For these reasons and others, auto racing has styled itself the “Sport of the Seventies.”

“Burning money”

Despite its popularity, car racing is going broke. With the huge costs for the sleek machines escalating more rapidly than the cost of living, the wealthy benefactors who turned racing into a potent entertainment institution have begun letting go of their large holdings. As one old racing hand puts it: “Motor racing is like a drowning man, with but one hand left on the raft.”

Nothing about motor racing is cheap. To campaign a car for a year on the Indianapolis car trail, the pinnacle of American car racing, a driver needs $500,000 to $1 million. Fifteen years ago, $30,000 would have sufficed.

Offenhauser or Ford-Foyt V-8 engines go for $32,500. A chassis costs $40,000, a set of brakes $2000. A Grand National stock car, the sort that tears around the banks at Daytona and outwardly resembles the Plymouth that rumbles down the expressway, costs $250,000 to maintain during a season of racing. Twenty thousand dollars fetches a Cosworth Ford V-8, the compact engine for Grand Prix cars that race on four continents for the Formula I championship. Fifty thousand dollars acquires the Porsche Carrera GT that competes at Le Mans. That amount is merely a down payment on the Porsche 917-30 that participated last year in American road racing and is the most expensive racing automobile ever built, it listed for $225,000. Seventy-five grand would buy a spare engine.

And racing is a risky enterprise. That $225,000 Porsche might well be reduced to a pile of rubble its first trip around the track. There is no collision insurance for racing cars. In this day of retrenchment and conservation, the great cars are, not surprisingly, being faulted as reckless toys of the very rich.

“There’s not much question that racing costs have gotten totally out of whack.”says Parnelli Jones, an affable and articulate car owner who won the 1963 Indianapolis. “We’re just burning money out there. We need some quick decisions to cut back the costs of race cars, but . . . nobody is sure what to do. I used to race three cars, and now I’m down to two. I can’t be sure I won’t have to back off to one soon.”

The effect of such madness on races is a dearth of cars. A record low thirtynine machines showed for this year’s California 500, one of the three starstudded contests on the Indy circuit. The Indianapolis 500, racing’s showpiece event, saw only sixty-one entries this year, down from the customary hundred. Last year at Trenton, nineteen cars (out of an advertised twenty-four) took the green flag in the Trentonian 200. A record was set for the fewest finishers—four. Only a demolition derby could make that figure lower. Cars fortunate enough to arrange financial backing are being forced to bear insignia peculiar in a sport accustomed to promoting spark plugs and motor oil. One Indy driver found himself behind the wheel of the Alex Foods Tamale Wagon.

What is more, events are being canceled altogether. For nine years, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series stood as the foremost competition for sports cars on this continent. Purses topped $100,000, though the chief appeal was the cars. The mammoth, twoseated Monsters were the fastest road cars in the world. Thundering down the straightaway, they could attain speeds of 250 miles an hour, and no corner existed around which they could not slither at over 30 miles per hour. Because of inflation, money can no longer be found to build these exotic machines, which require a quarter of a million dollars to develop. The series was terminated this year.

Late-model stock car racing is suffering from similar disaffection. Theoretically. this is a cheap form of racing. The cars—Plymouths, Fords, Dodges— look much like the ones in dealers’ showrooms. But since they must go 180 or 190 miles an hour (a passenger car that will do 95 is a fast car), they are not alike inside. Through a process known as blueprinting, the vehicles are dismantled and doctored until they are brought up to stringent racing standards at great expense. No longer willing to foot the bill. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors have all abandoned racing.

In the haughty world of Grand Prix racing, the factories that assemble the low-slung, wide-wheeled cars are almost all gone. Only Lotus and Ferrari remain from the lustrous days when countries sponsored squads of cars and when victorious drivers were honored by respectful monarchs. Small specialty makers now dominate the field. The cars are freakish, looking for all the world like enormous doorstops.

Only this year. France’s Matra concern. blaming the “economy of the Western world.”bowed out of the craft of race-car building. Its cars had scored victories in the last three Twenty-four Hours of Le Mans, and had taken the last two world manufacturers’ championships. Not since 1950, when the government of Charles de Gaulle tunneled $1 million into the Matra firm, had a French machine captured the classic. In 1972, a Matra at last popped the cork on French champagne at Le Mans. But by then De Gaulle was already dead.

Scores of speedways, which even in palmy days found profit elusive, are verging on bankruptcy. Major circuits can stage only two or three events a season without satiating the public. Rain-outs are frequent, and few fans return for rain dates, which invariably lose money. The problem is marginal profits in an industry whose most important variable, the weather, is an act of God. Tony Hulman, who owns Indy, told me that with expenses what they are, the famous arena merely “carries" itself.

Stop to consider the sorry saga of the $25.5 million Ontario Motor Speedway in California, racing’s own white elephant, Completed in 1970. it is the handsomest, most modern racing facility in the world, and the costliest. The original managers hailed out. drowning in red ink: a group led by Parnelli Jones took over, A complicated bond structure administered by the city of Ontario reckoned the daily cost of the track at $4000, more than racing could afford. Last year, a rock concert was staged there, drawing 190,000 fans. Ontario, however, didn’t warm to the sort of spectator attracted, and banned future festivals. The Jones contingent, just months ago. abandoned the track.


The most calamitous blow to the sport thus far was the defection this year of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company from involvement in all major racing forms. Firestone’s affiliation with motor racing dates to 1911, and hardly any other firm has been as unswervingly loyal. But its annual racing budget had bulged to an estimated $8 million, 150 percent above its budget ten years ago. In a period of plunging profits, the company got tired of explaining this lunacy to shareholders.

Firestone produced 100,000 racing tires in 1974. More than 150 varieties are manufactured, different ones for every track. Though main speedways appear identical, racing tires are so sophisticated that the rubber run on at Indianapolis may be ineffective at Ontario. Different tires are used at Daytona for the track’s February race than are used at its July event on the same surface, owing to the changed weather.

Racing tires are typically fourteen months in the development. Designs are fed through computers, and before it is mounted on a car. every tire is X-rayed to insure that no foreign matter is embedded in it. In pit areas, instrumentation is monitored to show the temperature of tires on the speedway (they can get as high as 300 degrees). At first, tire firms relied on racing as a testing laboratory for passenger tires. Nowadays, racing tires have no practical application. Says Bill McCreary, Firestone’s director of racing. “That makes it pretty hard to justify putting on the party.”

Goodyear is the last American company supplying racing tires here and abroad; it has given no assurance that the same economic forces that squeezed its competitor out of racing will not knock it out. It is no secret that Goodyear is retrenching this season without Firestone’s competition, and with reason. What is the point of blowing wads of money competing against oneself? Goodyear wants to be convinced that motor racing can regulate its own chronic inflation, something it has not yet demonstrated it can do. One way would be to standardize racing tires as much as possible. Doing this would reduce the sophistication and effectiveness of tires something lost on the general populace, anyhow but it would lower costs dramatically.

The present economy is not the only cause of the ominous problems at work in auto racing. To begin with, racing in the last decade has acquired a predilection for spending money that would embarrass an Arab sheik. In the innocent days of ten or fifteen years ago, any individual of modest means could purchase a racing car. and many did. Then racing began to catch on in a big way. Industrial firms, sensing the bountiful publicity value the sport had to offer, were anxious to spend their fortunes on the proposition that one car could go faster than another, Ford, Chrysler, Firestone, and Goodyear clambered aboard the bandwagon and, between the years 1964 and 1969, reportedly sank $200 million into the sport. Racing cars became motorized, 200-mile-an-hour billboards, and a driver’s chances of victory on the track were dictated by the amount of green in his sponsor’s billfold.

The enormous quantities of money pumped into the sport began to have a debilitating effect. Racing became a technological revolution out of control.

Too much speed?

Modern racing cars are among the most complex creations on earth. The snout-nosed Indianapolis cars are a smorgasbord of 5000 components, some no larger than a match head. Their chassis, like airplanes, are built on a stressed-skin principle. Two small spoilers are mounted at the front and a large wing at the rear. In effect, these are upside-down airplane wings; they reverse the lift that causes a plane to fly, and thus force the car down onto the track, increasing traction. Two-way radios enable the driver to communicate with his pit crew. New this year is a telemetry system which, through electronic sensors installed in the car. feeds into a pit-side computer data relating to various car functions—the ride height of the wheels, forward and lateral acceleration, air inlet temperature. With gimmicks like these, the cars must be toiled over ten hours a day, all year long.

Grant King, an Indy car builder and entrant with strong views on the sport, says: “When the big factories got involved in motor racing, they made us go to the moon. . . . Now, with our dealers deserting us, there’s been a withdrawal and we’re going into cold turkey. We’ve got to try to get back to the previous independent state, if we don’t die before we get there.”

Car makers have always pursued the false and seductive idea that speed is all-important. Speed has become the index of a car’s achievement. With dogged persistence, builders have chased the figure which answers the question. How fast can a race car be?—never recognizing that most fans would be content with the answer. Pretty fast. During their expensive hunt, builders might have paused at some point and asked a more sensible question: Is it good that the cars go so fast? The answer is No.

Cars whizzing along at today’s wicked speeds—200, 225, 250 miles per hourfail more often than slower-moving vehicles. Engines are like hand grenades: they can stand so much stress, and then they explode. There are so many parts that can malfunction. Worse, today’s misbegotten missiles have drastically diluted the value of the driver, once the most important ingredient in a winning entry. The famed Stirling Moss used to pride himself on dusting off the competition even when he was driving inferior machinery. He could never do so today.

The art by which great drivers are trained is a mysterious one. It involves a superlative blend of eve-hand control. The steering on a racing car is the equivalent of a hair trigger on a gun. In his cramped cockpit, the driver is cooked by heat, dulled by fumes. The wind tears at him. The noise batters at him. The engine may be pumping 800 horsepower. The driver’s well-being is dependent on such vagaries as the flight trajectory of birds (a bird can knock a man out at high speed).

Driving a racing ear once required skillful, rigidly controlled movement. Now, a driver needs only modest skill and a lead foot. The art has faded. A host of mediocre drivers have come into prominence for no other apparent reason than that they have well-crafted machines. The loser is the spectator who wants to see outstanding driving skill, not the genius of engineering.

When I first started going to motor races, they were conducted mostly on small dirt tracks up to a mile in length, their curves modestly banked. The straightaways were short, forcing cars to bunch up fiercely on the corners. There was a lot of bammin’ and frammin’ as the cars circled the track. They screamed down the chutes, emitting thunderous roars. The herd hurtled into the turns in a fantastic blur of dust, heat, noise, speed. As the cars churned around the turns, they drifted into long, graceful slides. At the peak of the maneuver. their front wheels were sideways to the direction in which the cars were traveling. The colossal rear tires kicked up magnificent rooster tails of dust. It was one of the most spectacular sights in sport.

The single-seat cars of those days were something a driver could rattle around in. The cockpit was cut so that it exposed the driver down to his waist, enabling spectators to watch his arms flailing as he wrestled his machine around the track, and to identify him as he raced past.

Dirt tracks steadily gave way to parking-lot surfaces, which didn’t need constant watering and frequent resurfacing. Big speedways, as long as two and a half miles, with curves tilled as high as 34 degrees, have become the order of the day. They look like bobsled runs. Cars don’t slide around the corners, or toss up rooster tails. They are set below their wheels, a scant three inches above the road. Drivers lower themselves into the cars, wiggling down with their arms over their heads. The driver wears the cockpit around his neck. All that is visible is the top of his helmet. And though they lap tracks much faster, the cars make less noise. Old-timers talk about that bygone noise, those glorious bounding cars. At current speeds, the sleek cars flick by so quickly that onlookers can barely see them.

The high speeds also needlessly raise the peril to drivers. The racing car is a killer, and always will be a killer. It has been killing drivers since 1898, as soon as men were able to prod the speed of their rickety machines over 30 miles per hour. Death can be the price a racing driver pays for his glory.

It is impossible to achieve riskless driving, or what is known in racing as “cotton wool.” But the death rate will always reflect responsible work at the drawing board. In cars that move at today’s speeds, the driver has little margin for error. Cars are often not much bigger than the drivers they encase. When they hit anything, they tear like cardboard. If a driver loses control, the odds are great that he will die.

Sheer speed can be detrimental. Drivers competing on the world’s fastest closed circuit—the Alabama International Speedway have complained of dizziness, chest pains, momentary blindness, and nausea. Engineers, after labored study, linked the maladies to a unique effect called “pogo.” First discovered in the beginning stages of the Gemini space program, the pogo effect is the result of harmonic vibrations coupled with severe gravitational pull. Many drivers have been loath to compete on the track, and who can blame them? Racing is supposed to be a test of skill, not a dice game with death.

Racing also kills its spectators. It has been killing spectators since 1903, when the Paris-Madrid race was halted after a dozen persons, including some drivers, perished. The average speed of that race was 65 miles per hour. Nothing, unfortunately, can make racing entirely safe for fans, unless they are shoved so far away and protected by so many walls and ditches that all drama is eliminated. If this were done, spectators wouldn’t come and motor racing would surely stop. But the faster the cars travel, the greater the chance they will crash and the greater the terrain they will tear across.

“The speeds we’re making just aren’t good for racing,” cautioned Peter Revson in 1973. Less than a year later, he fulfilled his own warning as he practiced for the South African Grand Prix. On a slippery track, his car plowed into an unyielding retaining wall, and Revson was killed.

Pomeroy’s Law

From the beginning of the sport to this moment, the toughest competition has been not between driver and driver but between the manufacturers and the governors of the sport. The men of authority, ever mindful of carnage (the 1973 Indianapolis 500. for example, took two drivers’ lives), would like the cars slowed. But they say that they are reluctant to brake them too much, for fear of boring the spectators; an odd position, since many spectators are bored by the cars’ going too fast. Sometimes national or corporate or vested interests have also acted, but the forces in favor of cutting speeds win only the skirmishes, never the battles.

Wings on the rear of Indy racers were trimmed, slowing them slightly. Restrictor plates were required on the carburetors of stock cars, with minimal impact on their velocity. Last year, limits were clamped on fuel allotments in the hope that cars would be slowed in order to achieve better mileage, again with little effect. (Race cars get as little as 1.5 miles to the gallon, but rarely run on the sort of gasoline pumped at the corner station. Nitromethane, methanol, and benzene are the most common fuels.)

Year after year, on every race circuit in the world—Watkins Glen, Daytona, Pamplona. Monte Carlo, Nurburgring— speeds keep rising, as if so dictated by irrevocable law. Such a law actually exists. It is called Pomeroy’s Law, after a respected British authority on Grand Prix racing. He demonstrated that the velocity of racing cars rises annually by a fixed percentage. On a gross basis, the years 1906 to 1975 have seen maximum speeds rocket from 93 to 230 miles per hour for Formula I cars. There is no end in sight.

Some feel that the solution is to return to the older stock block piston engines. These cost about $8500, compared with $32,500 for an Indy car engine. They consume less fuel. They emit fewer poisons. The idea has been discussed for some time.

After years of dithering, the United States Auto Club (USAC), which governs Indy racing, adopted rules which, by restricting turbocharger boost, will give stock block engines an equal chance against the newer engines. However. no one is totally certain that the older engines can withstand today’s brutal racing conditions.

Most racing people chalk up the state of the sport to the confusion of governing bodies. Five principal sanctioning bodies, and scores of lesser agencies, monitor auto racing. All of them seem to spend more time wrangling among themselves than they do attending to racing. While the sport was in its early stages, a rivalry developed between USAC and NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), which regulates Grand National competition. “It’s a hard part of the donkey to pin a tail on, but the blame has to be put on the sanctioning bodies.” says Dan Gurney, a highly successful car builder and Indv-car owner. “They keep making unrealistic rulings that serve only to hurt the sport.”

In order to achieve effective revisions, Gurney and others think it necessary that the sport’s committees of officials be supplanted by a single commissioner, one with wide-reaching authority. If such radical revamping is not to happen, then the present bodies will surely have to achieve harmony. It is of the first importance to develop a sensible philosophy about what constitutes good racing and what doesn’t, so that the rule changes will become less capricious, and more clearly understood and accepted bv the drivers and fans. “Right now, racing is a sport in the Dark Ages,” remarks a former speedway owner. “It has yet to see rational management.”

Romance crisis

Concern over exorbitant costs and death rates has tended to overshadow the fact that contemporary car racing also suffers a romance crisis. Racing is a cruel, tough sport, spattered with blood, reeking of oil. In the past, however, it was peopled with men of great dash and courage, who gave it grace, verve, and glamour: Joachim Bonnier, a darkbearded Swede, who ran one of the world’s finest art galleries; Phil Hill, the only American world champion and an authority on the player piano, who owned 4000 piano rolls, including a Rachmaninoff concerto played by Rachmaninoff himself; Maurice Trintignant, mayor of a town in France and owner of a vineyard; Eddie Sachs, who could have been a marvelous stand-up comedian; Count Von Trips, who owned a castle in Cologne and outside it parked his racing Ferrari, a car which later carried his coffin through the town to his grave.

In those days, the racing driver was a mythical figure who had to settle for more glory than cash, but he did not complain. There is little that compares to the sheer joy of putting a racing machine through a difficult maneuver and bringing it off perfectly. Drivers adored racing’s glamour and excitement, and did not ask further rewards.

Cars have since acquired such undreamed-of complexity that drivers with technical competence are needed, who can aid in the arcane areas of design, gear ratios, aerodynamics, tire structure, and grooving. Purses have skyrocketed. Racing drivers are now among the highest-paid athletes in the world. The best of them pocket as much as $1 million a year. The modern driver wears flashy suits, and commutes to races in his private plane. He lolls about luxury hotels, invests in fast-food chains. He tends to view race driving as a desperate endeavor, since he sees it principally in economic terms. He is not much concerned with the aesthetics of the sport, or with its history. “We’re all in this for the money,” A. J. Foyt told me. “Racing is a business, just like any other profession. It just happens we risk our necks.”

Of course, race driving expresses itself in various other less visible and less exotic forms—modified stock cars, sprint ears, midgets, dragsters—where something less than a rajah’s ransom is necessary to produce competitive machines. Whatever fate befalls the Indy cars and the Daytona Stockers, car racing’s minor leagues should at least perpetuate the idea of motor sport, if not allow the highest test of driving skill.