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A Cultural and Geographical History of Motor Racing

Having watched motor racing from all corners of the world, and having a deep understanding of human culture, Janós Wimpffen is perhaps better qualified than most to provide us with the benefits of his insights into some of the deeper mysteries of motor sport. We've asked him to limit himself here, to looking merely at some of the reasons that motor-racing has become what it is today.

Whether you are a keen and long-time follower of sports car racing, or are a novice convert to our branch of motor racing you have probably noticed that events are conducted somewhat differently in the various countries that grace the international calendar. The variations are the most pronounced when comparing the sport on either side of the Atlantic, but country-to-country distinctions are often readily apparent as well.

Sometimes the national peculiarities are subtle and only become apparent after seeing or participating in many events. Other idiosyncratic features are far more glaring. To point out just a few examples: European road courses are generally smoother than their American kin; American races tend to be littered with periods of neutralization, less so in the Old World. A frequent objective Stateside is to keep the racing close. This has rarely been a priority in Europe. There are varying degrees of passion about sports car racing throughout Europe, while it rarely is noticed on the American radar. Japanese racing, thus far the only major player in Asia, tends to be a hybrid.

This unending variety in the conduct and philosophy about sports car racing has its origins back in the dawn of the automotive age – indeed one can trace it back much further. These divergent practices have deep historic roots, some borne of long-term trends and others from the imprint of key individuals, the great automotive pioneers. Each country’s geographic quirks have played into the way in which racing is conducted, as has nationalistic pride, patterns of economic and technological development, and even quirky cultural traits with which we like to gently chide the many international friends we’ve all made in this enjoyable and exciting sport.

In the beginning, there was a void that was filled once the second car was built and motor racing began. Three national hearths of the automobile could readily be recognized: Germany, France, and Italy – more or less in that order. The British automobile industry arose a short time later while the U.S. was a bit of a laggard. It is difficult in today’s context to fully appreciate how primitive every aspect of the car was in the late 19th century.

There was nothing remotely equivalent to standardization. Sources of fuel, driving mechanisms, driver controls, auxiliary components, lubrication methods and seating configurations were all quite unsettled and subject to continuing trial and error. Reliability was measured by whether a motor car could make it unscathed from one end of a village to the other. It is little wonder that early competitions were less speed events than they were tests of mechanical survival.

It wasn’t until the middle of the first decade of the 20th century that it became universally apparent that the car was here to stay. Until subsequent advancements in mass production by Ford, Olds and others, it remained mostly a toy of the wealthy. In effect, until the coming of the Model T, most marques were as exclusive as today’s Ferraris, Astons, and Porsches. Sports car racing today is seen as catering to a certain “lifestyle” – the cars are marketed accordingly and the associated sponsors often follow suit in appealing to a desirable demographic. It was not altogether different in the early years. At the time there were a relatively large number of low-volume artisanal constructors all vying for sales. The difference was that pre-mass production, “ordinary” cars simply didn’t exist.

The genesis of what we today called the automobile can be readily traced to the Stuttgart area. Along with parts of England and Scotland, it was one of the most fertile areas of industrial development during the 19th century. The dense network of suppliers, vendors, designers and venture capital created interaction that spawned such great minds as Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Robert Bosch, and August Otto. Benz is regarded as the creator of the first viable internal combustion powered automobile, Bosch is called the father of the magneto, Daimler created several advances in drive mechanisms and Otto perfected the four-stroke motor.

Ironically, nearly all of these German “inventions” were actually built previously in France. However, French industry of the period did not have the locus of activity that the Stuttgart nexus did and it would be east of the Rhine where the industry had its first toehold. The fledgling German constructors remained a practical lot, focused on perfecting techniques before becoming too concerned with production, and most certainly not at all with excessive display of their wares in competition.

Although Germany had the jump on developing and perfecting 19th century automotive technology, there was little or no opportunity for motor racing there. The industrialized areas tended to be along river valleys which had few roads, most of the commerce being by marine or rail traffic. Besides, Herr Benz and the rest were more intent on experimenting and perfecting the exciting new mechanical possibilities than in flailing the cars with abandon. Most of the German automotive pioneers arose out of the well-trained engineering elite that had arisen earlier in the 19th century.

Although Austrian by birth, Ferdinand Porsche is perhaps the most remembered of the early 20th century’s great German designers. His electric-petrol hybrid and 4-wheel drive innovations were decades ahead of their time. When Germany gained a second wind in national and international racing it was again Porsche at the forefront. Benz contracted him to design the Tropfenwagen, destined to become the first working mid-engine race car. It was not the last such car to come off of his drafting table.

The situation was quite different in France. Once you are north and west of the Massif Central, the countryside is relatively flat. There are good roads dating from at least the Napoleonic era, if not all the way back to the Romans. As in Germany, some of the French automotive pioneers were also of the engineering class but they were often assisted by a cadre of gentlemen of aristocratic leanings with considerable interest, both technical and financial, in the new found enterprise.

As was noted, some of the early inventions claimed by the Germans had already been conceived independently in France, but had never been brought to fruition there. While the Germans worked on making propulsion systems function, the French focus was on how best to traverse the still rough roads. This is why people such as Jules-Albert de Dion and Rene Panhard made some of the early advances in suspension design. De Dion’s business partner, Georges Bouton won what was arguably the first motor race ever, a two-mile jaunt through the Bois de Boulogne in April, 1887. Coincidentally, the first race held in Europe following World War II was held in the same Paris park. Key elements in making these early French cars viable in motor sport were the inventions of Andre Michelin: chiefly the detachable tire. He built upon the advances of England’s John Dunlop, who perfected the pneumatic tire – another key step in making the transition from the horse and carriage days.

Panhard and his automotive constructor partner, Emile Levassor, were winners of the some of the early city-to-city races which became popular in France during the 1890s, including the Paris-Rouen event of July, 1894. It is generally considered as the most important race of the decade. These point-to-point competitions spread to the neighboring countries of Belgium and Spain and were important showcases for the manufacturers. It remained dominated by the French companies, with some inroads by Germans, Italians and the nascent Belgian automotive industry.

This was the first great era of motor racing and it is worth noting that back then there was certainly no distinction between sports cars and any other type of racing machines. That distinction only began to emerge very gradually just prior to World War I, then became generally recognized during the inter-war decades, and only became fully codified after WWII. But what did begin to arise already during the 1890s was that cars built for competition had different standards than those for the, still quite small, general market.

The city-to-city racing era is remembered primarily for a series of bad accidents which claimed the lives of not only crew members, but many spectators. We may now think of speeds of 40-50 miles per hour as laughable, but recall that braking technology was the laggard in the mix—barely beyond that of the horse-drawn carriage. It was not until late in this period that Louis Renault perfected the drum brake. Equally significant, the vast throngs of the public who were so enraptured by the spectacle had never seen motor vehicles, much less ridden in, or driven one. Therefore, they had as much concept of the notion of speed as the proverbial deer in the headlights. The mayhem that ensued led to a rethink from which emerged the notion of closed circuit racing, where again France was a key player, establishing the permanent circuit at Le Mans.

France was also the source of possibly the first marque designed primarily for racing, the Darracq. It was the Ferrari of its day, winning many events, especially the hillclimbs and long-distance trials popular during the naught decade of the 20th century. Alexandre Darracq’s company was later folded in with the enterprise developed by Tony Lago. What became the Talbot-Lago was perhaps the epitome of the French ethos to merge racing performance with top level design, styling, and usefulness on the road.

No survey of French racing history is complete without covering the work of Ettore and Jean Bugatti. They are remembered primarily for building many successful Grand Prix cars that dominated for several years in the 1930s. Bugatti was one of the most prolific racing marques of the period and was among the first to develop a separate line of sports racers.

France was also the source of a brief early flirtation with smaller, cheaper production cars for racing. Called voiturettes, they were primarily chain drive and intended for both road and track usage. In effect, they had elements of today’s Radicals, Caterhams and Minis. However, they proved too fragile and were not price-competitive with sturdier cars that were built later; for example, British cars like Austin.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, the poor state of the post-WWII French economy, and draconian tax laws all combined to kill off the excellent French racing and production industry that had existed before. To some extent the post-WWII Italian sporting scene was similar that of France in the preceding decades, combining styling and performance into a very desirable package.

France’s earlier legacy was that of being the first racing power, the home of the closed circuit and concurrently, the place where the rules for the sport were established. In the days before the EU and UN, France was the center of the universe for all matters diplomatic or cultural, as any French person will proudly confirm. Thus it came to be that Paris too became the star around which all motor racing organization revolved.

While Italy too was an early racing superpower, it did not begin to truly rise until the turn of the last century. The impetus came not from the mainland but rather from Vincenzo Florio of Palermo. Throughout the Belle Époque, Sicily had been a haven for well-heeled northerners and Florio saw an opportunity for showcasing Italian machinery against the might of Germany, France and the other emerging power, England. Automotive engines were exceedingly inefficient and one method to overcome this was simply to build ever larger motors, hoping that the marginal increase in horsepower would offset the extra weight. This was a particular trait of early Italian cars, with several Fiats exceeding 10 liters in displacement and a 1911 model topping out an amazing 28,000 cc. Others took a more refined approach, perhaps most notably the products of Felice Nazzaro. Along with his former employer, Vincenzo Lancia, these two constructors swept many of the early national events.

While the Lancia marque lived on, Nazzaro was one of so many that were household names a century ago but have since slipped into history. Nazzaro was an early champion at the most famous of Florio’s events, the Targa Florio. This amazing race initially covered a circuit of 72 kilometers around the Madonie Mountains. Although it was shortened twice during its history it was held most every year until the end of 1970s and along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans is considered among the most epic of sports car racing venues. A third great sports car racing classic, the Mille Miglia, could only have been held on Italian soil. Although not held since 1957, it remains a tale of awe that this race really did take place. It featured a complete circuit of the northern half of the country, from Brescia to Rome and back, through villages, across stone bridges, past fields, and up over mountain passes, with throngs of spectators at every bend. Over 500 cars participated each year from tiny touring cars to the latest sports-racers.

Another Italian pioneer, Nicola Romeo, was pure business during his company’s early days but by the 1920s Alfa Romeo vied with Bugatti for national and international racing supremacy. Graced by star drivers such as Tazio Nuvolari and team management by Enzo Ferrari, it became supremely successful. Completing the Italian racing constellation were the cars of the Maserati brothers. The early Italian automotive legacy was a quilt of ambitious enthusiasts, some creative inventors, and a driving passion that fueled the sport. It was also a place where to be seen at races was as important as it was to see races. Early Italian circuit events, hill climbs and trials became watering holes for the elite.

Before leaving the Continent, spare a thought for an important but sometimes forgotten national pioneer of automobiles, Belgium. The small country has always had a disproportionate interest in the sporting aspects of motor cars. While the Le Mans circuit has the longest continual history as a closed course, the concept actually had its genesis at a location in the Ardennes, not far from the present day Spa-Francorchamps venue. There was a modest degree of manufacturing in the country with marques such as Minerva, Excelsior, and Imperia achieved some racing success. The last named company has a unique legacy. In a land of limited open space, Imperias were tested on a circuit built on the roofs of the factory buildings.

Performance motoring in Britain was stymied by reactions to the new beast. Enough horses, children and church-goers were frightened that the infamous Red Flag Statute was enacted. If you thought a stop-and-hold penalty at the end of pit lane is severe, how about having to be preceded by a flag-waving pedestrian on every lap? Even after the law’s repeal, the British, being an orderly sort, were the first to impose speed limits. Those wild open road races were best left to the Latin types and from the great island came an alternative to closed circuits on public roads, the world’s first purpose-built motorsport venue, Brooklands.

With large crowds at most events, Brooklands made its version of European racing a spectacle. The banked turns and high speeds on the oval became a crucible for the development of the British racing industry. It was not until the 1930s before another venue rivaled its importance. That was Donington Park, scene of some of the epic international events during a decade fraught with nationalistic overtones.  Silverstone today claims to be the home of British motor racing, but like many of its contemporaries it was only a post-WWII creation, hewn from the ample supply of surplus airfields once hostilities ceased. Germany too had its surplus aerodromes after the war but they had grown a few potholes and the country’s priorities were on general rebuilding.

Returning to the beginning, British constructors had few reasons to concentrate on racing, but a focus on ingenuity from different perspectives would coalesce into a strong sporting ethic. On the one hand were people like Charles Stewart Rolls and Henry Royce who were preeminent in coupling perfection, performance, and opulence. British enterprise has a history of building to cost and pioneers such as Herbert Austin and William Morris, Lord Nuffield, brought mass production to the UK in a unique style. Cecil Kimber, working for Morris, particularly captured the zeitgeist of the 1920s. His M.G. would forever become the standard for affordable performance.

British technical expertise then and now laid the groundwork for a host of performance-related advances. While today we praise Audi’s diesel technology, it was England’s Harry Ricardo who first made high-revving diesel motors practical. These automotive engineering related skills were made welcome in Britain from an early stage and later allowed one-time garage builders such as Colin Chapman to develop vast empires. Today, the world’s largest concentration of motor racing expertise is clustered within the “Motorsport Valley” in England’s densely-populated south-eastern counties. That legacy can be traced back to Ricardo and his contemporaries.

The greatest thrills in pre-WWII British racing were provided courtesy of the genius of Walter Owen Bentley. Honed on the Brooklands banking, the Blower Bentleys were among the first great proper sports cars and the first multi-year winners at Le Mans. They were true supercars and are today among the most collectible of all. While the Bentleys were the true British standout before WWII, perhaps it is the Jaguar that best epitomizes the balance of qualities equated with England. William Lyons’s company built cars of subdued elegance, sublime performance, and at an appropriate cost.

That other early purpose-built course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is actually two years younger than Brooklands, although it has enjoyed greater longevity and is closer to the overall American approach to racing than is Brooklands to Britain and Europe. As with Europe, the automobile in America began in fits and starts. It was mostly bicycle and carriage makers who tinkered with adding a motor to drive the wheels. Nearly every city east of the Mississippi had a burgeoning car industry of several dozen garages. Upper New York State, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan had distinct concentrations of builders, each region home to a variety of industrial hubs.

In proper Darwinian fashion the numbers gradually reduced. America is home to great capital zeal as well as ingenious homespun innovations. Both played a role in the development of the native automotive industry. Ransom Olds and Henry Ford separately developed the techniques of interchangeability and mass production, the prime force that shifted the automobile from a novelty to a practical necessity as well as making it the quintessential product of 20th century technology. Entrepreneurs such as William Durant consolidated the most viable companies into what would become General Motors. Much as Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 1980s, the budding center of Detroit attracted the best and brightest young American engineers. Among them was Walter Marr. Working for David Buick he built the first working valve in head engine design, a quantum leap in engine efficiency, reliability and maintenance.

In Europe, some of the manufacturers turned to racing whereas in the U.S. it was sometimes the other way around. Louis Chevrolet, Frederic Duesenberg and Ray Harroun, winner of the inaugural Indy 500, all began their automotive careers driving for someone else and then starting companies on their own. Harroun’s venture did not succeed, while the Duesenbergs became the most iconic American car on road and track during the 1930s; and the Swiss immigrant’s company, Chevrolet, became a pillar of all-American industry. America’s love affair with the automobile matured with these people and had its infancy earlier with inventors such as Alexander Winton, builder of the first 8-cylinder motor – itself an emblem of Yankee iron. Even earlier were the Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank, who built the first viable stateside car and were the only survivors of the initial race on American soil. Held in a driving blizzard in November, 1895, it ran from downtown Chicago to the suburb of Evanston and back. Most urban commuters will attest that 118 years later the average travel speed has not improved.

Early motor racing in the United States was limited. Apart from some parts of the east coast, roads between cities were poor or non-existent. Commerce was predominantly by railroad. The exceptions were on Long Island and Savannah, Georgia, where the early editions of the Vanderbilt Cup were held on roads closed to traffic. In the 1910s the series was briefly reprised with races in Milwaukee and California. These events were similar to their European counterparts and were indeed dominated by foreign teams, but simultaneously a number of purpose-built ovals were appearing around the U.S., of which Indianapolis was just one. Motor racing was carried on as a spectacle at these locales, with “cranks” (as fans were referred to at time) being able to see the whole of a racecourse rather than just a small segment. The events were made for the public rather than the entrants or manufacturers.

The oval track tradition was a holdover of the local fairs and horse races that served as entertainment across a great swath of communities which were otherwise separated from each other. Close racing rather than advanced technology was seen by promoters as the best way to attract crowds. The techniques have changed but the principle remains the same. Today, strategic management of the rules and conduct of the races seeks to retain the public’s interest, which now refers primarily to video coverage.

The emphasis on spectacle also helped propel drivers into the public eye. Today many road racing journalists, particularly in America, deride the general sports media and public’s disinterest in their subject area. However, one hundred years ago figures such as Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma were idolized on a par with current stick-and-ball heroes.

The American auto industry was born from a need to be durable and for cars be able to travel ever longer distances. This contributed to a producer and market relationship that favored larger cars. This meant that from a motor racing perspective the road surfaces needn’t be that smooth. The trend was nearly the opposite in Europe. As motor racing focused on the manufacturers there was a continual technological arms race. As the cars became faster they became more delicate, demanding smoother surfaces. This divergence between racing surface characteristics on opposite sides of the Atlantic only became more pronounced during the last decades of the 20th century.

Another great American trait, ingenuity, did not lie fallow during the first-half of the 20th century. The main proving grounds were the oval tracks, chiefly the Indy 500 but also a rich period of board track racing as well. No figure was more important during this era than Harry Miller. Quite unlike what was going in standard American production, Miller focused on getting the most from least, perfecting overhead cams, supercharging and multi-valve engines. His designs lived on in the Offenhauser motors used well into the 1960s.

Sports car racing did not gain much of a foothold in the U.S. before WWII, and that which did take place mostly utilized European cars. There was of course a worldwide revival of racing in all its forms during the latter half of the 20th century, but nowhere was the pre- and post-war contrast greater than in America. There was ample space and wealth for both oval and road racing to thrive. While still nominally amateur, American sports car racing took on its own blended character that was finely exceptional.

Two patterns emerged that are still a hallmark of the sport in America. On the one hand there was a continual wave of imports of the finest European, and later, Japanese, cars. Indeed, while Porsche and Ferrari are the predominant marques of sports car racing, neither would have survived their lean years without relying on the American market. Similarly the array of popular British cars would not have managed as long as they did without exporting most of their stock. A second, and truly uniquely American character, was that of Hot Rod culture. Even if the donor chassis were sometimes sourced from overseas such as with Allard and Cobra, the endless experimentation with chassis, body, and engine combinations became a major factor in the development of the modern sports-racing classes. Hot Rod culture was chiefly of California origin. Many of the early practitioners were engineers from the burgeoning aerospace industry and from the technical side of Hollywood who had ample spare cash during this prosperous era to indulge in their hobby.

Being the land of the large automobile, America has not produced multiple high-volume sports constructors as have most other automotive manufacturing countries. There is, of course, one major exception. The Chevrolet Corvette has only grown in stature as a desirable and viable competitor.

Not heard from before the mid-1960s, there was another racing power rising over the horizon – Japan. Automobile production began in earnest during the 1930s, chiefly through the work of Kiichiro Toyoda. Anglicized with a “t” it remains the largest car manufacturer run as a family business. First in production racing and later with prototypes, the three Japanese giants, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota rapidly covered the globe with their products. Initially their technical and styling approaches were more derivative but gradually each became known for significant though modest innovations.  Sports car racing has never caught on in mass fashion to the domestic audience in Japan. Rather it has a significant cult following of devotees, highly enthusiastic about their favorites of the three main marques. There is enough support left over for a few Japanese iconoclasts, chiefly Mazda.

Following through on this sweep through racing cultural history, the last 50-60 years has been very kind to Germany. No marque has dominated sports car racing more than Porsche in terms of sheer numbers of entries or volume of victories. Although the long Nordschleife circuit of the Nürburgring sees limited competition use, it is still an important pole in sports car racing. But the fulcrum of sports car racing continues to belong to the French. They are no longer home to many great racing constructors but hosting the most important endurance race will continue to satisfy France as being a racing superpower.

Ferrari, Italy and sports car racing are all complementary terms. Indeed, the Prancing Horse has been an integral part of all racing. The Italian fan base is among the most passionate. However, in recent years most of that enthusiasm has been directed to F1. Italy’s star as a host to major sports car races and teams has waned since the glory days of the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio. It used to be said that Ferrari built road cars mostly to feed their racing habit. That is now less the case as it has been folded into an expanded corporate umbrella where the road going Ferraris are just another profit center. Racing culture has given way to corporate culture.

If Ferrari’s racing philosophy has made a 180-turn then much the same can be said about Porsche. For much of their existence racing has been conducted primarily as a venue for marketing their wares and increasing sales of the road cars. The proliferation of GT racing series over the past 15 years has instead encouraged Porsche to focus on building ever larger numbers of their successful production-based racers. Thus for Porsche race car construction has become their profit center.

Britain has continued to contribute to the sport along two complementary paths. The combination of native knowledge, a history of innovation, and some government polices have served to make the U. K. the key designers and constructor of low-volume specialty cars, especially prototypes, and their ancillary components. Equally important, it is source of most of the human capital regarding engineering and team management.

Sports car racing, indeed all motor sport in the United States continues to carry with it elements of American exceptionalism. Oval tracks and their derivatives reign supreme. Racing formulae are relatively crude, but individuals are greatly admired. It takes all of these different qualities to create the tasty soup that today is international sports car racing.

Janós Wimpffen
(all photos courtesy of the Revs Institute)