More than a full decade into the 21st century, with motor sport well into its second hundred years, it’s fascinating to think of how the sport has evolved and yet how it has remained unchanged with regard to its basic DNA.
At first it was men on foot who were compelled to test themselves against each other in races such as the events in the ancient Olympic Games. Very quickly they added races with riders on horseback, or in chariots or other vehicles pulled by horses.
The denizens and the explorers of the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle used dogs to pull sleds and that, too, eventually transmogrified into a race. When the bicycle came along, it offered a personal transportation alternative to the horse – and yet another mode of competition. Bicycle racing dates from 1868.
So, when motorized vehicles came along, well…
The story of how Henry Ford utilized a speed competition against rival manufacturer Alexander Winton to launch the Ford Motor Company is well known to auto enthusiasts. Many also know that at the time of that 10-mile race at Grosse Point, Mich., Winston – an automobile manufacturer from Cleveland – already was reputed as one of the country’s premier automobile racers.
So the sport has roots that predate the establishment of lasting forms, all of which transpired in the early 20th century. Prior to establishment in 1902 of an auto club, the American Automobile Association and its contest board to oversee racing, most auto racing was local or regional, without any structure or organization, and most of it has been lost as unrecorded history.
Under Triple A sanction, racing began to grow as an organized, legitimate sport. Events such as the Vanderbilt Cup races and the Indianapolis 500 gave American motor sport its foundations.
In most of its first half-century, racing – including track racing and straight-line speed trials – served, and was highly touted, as a proving ground for manufacturers. That was almost as important as the competition itself – except, of course, to the competitors. For them, for the drivers and mechanics, the whole point was speed – to go faster than everybody else.
And speed remained the primary essence of the sport until the last three decades of the 20th century, when speeds reached a practical, if not a technical, limit.
At Indianapolis, at Daytona, on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, speeds climbed above 200 miles per hour. And in a society that was becoming more litigious, less tolerant of recklessness, a society that had already been through a period of revulsion at rising highway traffic deaths and carnage on racing tracks, capped by the catastrophe at Le Mans in 1955 that killed more than 80 spectators, motor sport changed.
Smaller engines, restricted horsepower, diminished emphasis on rewriting the speed record books and enhanced emphasis on competition and entertainment made just about all forms of the sport, from Formula One on down, spec racing series.
Yet, even within more stringent and limiting rules, the drive to get to the checkered flag first remains.
The instinct has its origins in the most elemental of all urges – to survive. Speed was necessary both to catch prey and evade predators. “Survival of the fittest” quite often, if not usually, meant “survival of the fastest.”
In a parallel so close it’s virtually the same thing, the skills of warfare were enhanced by speed.
Even in today’s civilized and softened culture, little kids still place games like “chase” and “tag.” Even if they play them on computerized game machines, they’re still seeking the adrenalin rush their ancestors needed just to survive and continue the advancement of the species into another generation.
Even in today’s civilized and softened culture, we remain competitive and combative.
An anecdote, impossible to verify but with a strong resonance of truth, holds that at one point very early in automotive history there were four horseless carriages known to exist in the United States, and two of them collided. In all likelihood, they were racing.