Bruce MacInnes, the swashbuckling former racer and current Skip Barber instructor notorious in certain circles for stunts like landing a private plane on the main straight of a certain well-respected East Coast road course, has a helpful little tactic he uses to calm drivers who are nervous before a race.
"I say to them, 'do you remember who the 1970 F1 World Champion was?' Almost nobody does. So if people don’t even remember the best driver at the peak of the sport, who’s gonna remember what happens in a club race, or even a pro race?"
"Wait," I replied, "was it Alan Jones?"
"Nope,” he laughs. "It was Jochen Rindt." Alan Jones, of course, was the 1980 World Champion. Maybe you remembered both, and if so you have my respect. Can you name the 1970 NASCAR champ? It was Bobby Isaac. How about the 1971 IMSA GTO winner? It was Dave Heinz, who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. You can be an awfully successful racer and go to your grave mostly unremembered. Heck, I’m willing to bet that none of you know who the 2018 NASA Great Lakes Honda Challenge champion is.
(Let me fill you in on this vital tidbit of racing trivia: it’s me! I’ll be signing autographs at your local junkyard, assuming your local junkyard has some halfway decent body panels for a 1995 Neon.)
Even if you don’t remember the various past champions of F1, NASCAR, IMSA, or Honda Challenge, as a Road & Track reader you can probably recall the names of quite a few drivers. So ask yourself: why, exactly, do you remember them? Is it because they won a championship? Is it because you saw them pull off off a particularly neat piece of driving? Or is because they have, or had, a distinct and memorable character?
I’m not much of a NASCAR fan, but I can repeat several stories about Dale Earnhardt, Sr. I never saw James Hunt race but I know a fair amount about him. A while ago, this magazine invited Randy Lanier to come race with us at Mid-Ohio. He was the 1984 IMSA GTP champion, but that isn’t why we reached out. There really is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to making a name for yourself in motorsports. If you don’t believe me, go back and read some of ; much of it was extremely critical, even negative in tone. Yet people will still talk about Senna long after Lewis Hamilton joins Jochen Rindt in dignified obscurity. Not because of how Senna died, but because of how he lived.
Contrast that with an afternoon I recently spent talking to an extremely successful professional racer about his career. This fellow won a lot of big races and made a very handsome living behind the wheel for decades. I was vibrating with excitement when we sat down to speak. Unfortunately, that excitement proved short-lived. If there was anything genuinely interesting about this driver’s long and respectable career, he managed to completely bury it beneath a feckless recitation of results, sponsor shout-outs, trivial details, and occasionally bitter remonstrances about missed opportunities in the business.
I don’t know why I was surprised. When this fellow was racing, he was notable for nothing at all, really. For showing up and doing his job more or less the way his employer expected. I attended a few of his races 15 years ago, and if he had any real fans, they must have stayed home that day. Nor has his fame increased with time; just for experimental purposes I’ve mentioned the interview to about a dozen friends, all of whom responded with, "I’m sorry, what was the name again?"
Forty years from now, this driver will be down there with poor Dave Heinz in the list of trivia answers. In fact, it might happen sooner than that. Human beings don’t respond to bland lists of wins and titles. We respond to stories, to reputations, to characters.
So why are today’s racers so afraid to create, or reveal, any of the above? With very few exceptions, why are they terrified to say anything in public besides a monotone recitation of stock phrases and sponsor buzzwords? Admit it: just once, you'd like somebody to get out of the second-place prototype at an IMSA race and say something like, "That son-of-a-bitch bumped me out of the way three laps back, his car is probably illegal in five separate ways, and I hope his ugly grandchildren get smacked in the face by Halley’s Comet."
Alternately, imagine the thrill of somebody standing on NASCAR’s Victory Lane and telling a reporter, "You know what? The car was slow, the team was almost too lazy to put gas in the thing at the last pitstop, but I drove a hell of a race! I put this rancid crapwagon in first through my sheer incandescent talent! I coulda done it with any car here, including the pace car!"
Back in 1976, a young bass player named Jaco Pastorius met Joe Zawinul, the leader of the white-hot fusion band Weather Report. "I’m the best bass player in the world," he told Zawinul, and he went on to prove it. Can we get a little bit more of that hubris, that bravado, in motorsports? Virtually every driver I know secretly thinks that he or she is the best shoe on the grid. There would be no point in going out otherwise. When I line up for a club race, or even for a minor-label pro race, I pity the fools who have to beat me to the first corner, because I’m the brightest light they’re ever gonna see. If I can openly say it, why can’t Fernando Alonso say it, particularly since, in his case, it’s probably true?
I’ve had people complain to me about "PC culture" being responsible for today’s mush-mouthed inhabitants of Victory Lanes from Sebring to Sepang. I don’t think that’s it. Sure, some of the insults and characterizations that flew around in my youth would earn immediate dismissal nowadays. Heck, poor , which is beyond ridiculous. Nor do I think that James Hunt would be lionized today as he was in 1975. But there’s nothing particularly non-PC about being a fierce and outspoken competitor. A racer can brag, gloat or trash-talk by bringing up nothing but lap times and straightaway speed. "PC culture" doesn't require anyone to insert the brand name of every tire provider, chassis constructor, or sponsor into every conversation.
Rather, I think it’s a case of what I call "Chicken Store Number Four" syndrome. There’s a locally-famous intersection in Columbus, Ohio . Now let’s say you were opening a chicken store of your own. Shouldn’t you locate it as far away from that intersection as possible? That would be my opinion, but successful franchise owners will tell you the wise entrepreneur puts the store on the last remaining corner.
There’s a lot of science behind it, but the bottom line is that it’s safer to do what everyone else is doing. That way, you can angle for 25 percent of the chicken business. Sure, you might do better at another intersection, but you might also do much worse. The smart money says you should be Chicken Store Number Four.
Today’s young drivers get as much coaching about business relationships as they do about Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew. So it’s no surprise that they approach the business of racing with the measured, cautious approach of a chicken-store franchisee—and it’s no surprise that they tend to get the same measured, cautious results. The sad part is that virtually all of these racers are fiercely driven and hugely competitive individuals. They want to win just as much as Tony Stewart or Juan Pablo Montoya does. They’re just afraid to show it the way that Stewart or Montoya would.
I personally think that a young driver could break away from the pack and have a lot of success by letting their inner fight-picker out to play. Act like Smoke, or Senna, or Dale. Forget the sponsor names, dispense with the smooth. Get up there on the podium and let it all hang out. Maybe get in a few pit-lane scuffles. I think there’s some competitive advantage to be had there, the same way the 1994 Dodge Ram truck increased sales by adopting a deliberately controversial aesthetic. But it’s not my career, or my future, on the line. I don’t have any franchises to build to sell. All I can say is: Kids, remember what Bruce MacInnes says about the 1970 World Champion. Calm down and win your race. And when it’s time to talk to the people with the microphones, my advice is: Don’t be a chicken.