Have to qualify my enthusiasm first. My ambition from first grade on was to be a racing driver or a writer. From the age of six I attended SCCA sports car racing events at a short track in Vineland, NJ, with a wicked chicane and a short straight by stands steeped in the smell of mustard, cherry tobacco smoke, and Castrol R. The last was the equivalent of an automotive aphrodisiac. The racing motor lubricant Castrol R is not petroleum. It’s emulsified castor beans. At high temperatures it’s beyond Chanel and other perfumes. It’s a fragrance that connects to the male soul so directly that all you ever want to do afterwards is go fast. When you smell it you want motors, revs, a track, a tach, and curves without end. Are you getting me? Even at nine years old, it’s sex before you know what sex is. Why I’m remembering the Vineland Speedway parking lot, where I saw my first XKE Jaguar, which is its own definition of sex.
So I was always a racing fan. Even as I say this, I know I am losing most of you. It was never NASCAR. It was, in order, the SCCA racing I watched, the Formula 1 and related racing in Europe — Le Mans and the Mille Miglia — and sometimes in the U.S., as at Watkins Glen and Sebring, open wheeled American racing like Indy, and then stock cars, which I thought of as fist fights between Bobby Allison and Cale Yarbrough.
By the time I was ten I had actually had the opportunity to trace the course of the Monaco Grand Prix in a 1962 Studebaker Hawk.
Glorious and terrifying. So narrow, so filled with acute turns, so dangerously close to precipices by the sea.
I only became aware of Indy racing when schedules allowed Grand Prix drivers to compete in the 500. It was a deadly time. The American drivers thought the GP interlopers were pansies who could be intimidated. The result was a horrifying series of deaths as both sides learned the unflinching competitiveness of the other.
But from the beginning I knew that Formula 1 Grand Prix racing was the most dangerous sport in the world. Just imagine that the history of games between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals — you know, about 30 players per year over 65 years — had resulted in this number of fatalities. Fifty plus Grand Prix drivers have died driving. More than one every two years. NFL football can’t cite anything like similar statistics.
I know. We should stop it. Formula 1 racing just shouldn’t be. Except that it produces real life drama that exceeds what fiction can invent.
I convinced my wife to watch “Rush.” She was amenable though not hopeful. She’s heard all my Jersey motorhead stories, which impress women not at all. But there is that moment when beating the other to the next light or the next corner is more important than your eternal soul. Nobody believes it who hasn’t been there. This movie puts you there.
When it was over, I asked, “What did you think? A good movie?”
She said, “Not a good movie. A great movie.”
One of the user reviews at IMDB.com said in the most terse of film sum-ups, “What men do.”
Which, I’m sure, will be taken as proof of the continuing conservative War on Women.
Except that I can remember, in this most extreme of sports, that when I was ten I watched a female racing driver named Donna Mae Mims race against the men at Vineland and we were all rooting for her.
But I also remember that the most mesmerizing spectacle I ever saw at the Vineland track was an Elva Courier bearing the number “000” lap every driver within 25 laps on a tiny course. The driver’s name was Mark Donohue. He died in Formula 1 in 1975.
Thankfully, we can always pretend that women compete equally with men. The Super Bowl this year will drive home the muscularity of female racing drivers.
Enjoy the illusion and keep waiting for a woman to win a major race.
ADDENDUM. This post is a trifle but permit me to honor Wolfgang Von Trips, Graham Hill, Jimmy Clark, Ayrton Senna, and Michael Schumacher, who holds every F1 record and is fighting for his life after a skiing accident. (Yeah. You could say that Schumacher is the Gretztky of Grand Prix racing. Or, with perhaps more justice, you could say that Gretzky is the Michael Schumacher of hockey. That’s how prodigious his career has been.) Why is Schumacher dying? Because he couldn’t stop seeking out and taking risks. Very simple. Let’s all enjoy the inaugural year of women’s ski jumping.
And enjoy the movie Rush knowing that it is more true than fiction. Men do what men do. What we all should do.