Monday, January 5, 2009

Racing, Not the Video Game Kind

After having posted verbosely about racing, it seems like a good idea to put down some kind of baseline for what real-life racing I enjoy, so terms and concepts are understood if I go batshit and start blogging a lot more about driving games.

Right off the starting line, I'm not a NASCAR fan. I keep up with the Nextel Cup standings each year and occasionally catch a race (or the highlights of one), but I'm not a frother about it. There was a time when the cars represented something more like a car you could buy. I'm not saying they REALLY were like street cars... the term 'stock' in stock car racing has been false at that level of racing for a long time now. But the cars were not entirely fabricated for a particular race or track type like they are now. The money and sponsorships have just taken the competition 'fun' right out of NASCAR. Everything and everyone has to conform. Very strict templates. Very strict rules. The cars are almost interchangeable, apart from the very rich teams who have the money to squeeze one last tiny ounce of engineering advantage over the poorer teams. A sport that used to have fans (and rivalries) at the driver level, car level, and manufacturer level now really only varies in its drivers. If you are a Chevy fan and Jimmy Johnson wins again, you can't in all fairness say 'Whoooo, Chevy rulez!'.... because Chevrolet had nothing to do with his victory other than supplying sponsorship money. They don't supply the car, the engine has no real-world basis of comparison, even the tires-- arguably the most important part of the car-- are all the same across all the teams in the interest of fairness. And whatever the drivers, sponsors, or fans will tell you, these cars are not on any pinnacle of technology. They use old technology based on simple systems that no person driving on the street would still want to be stuck with. I don't begrudge people that ARE fans, and as I mentioned I do keep up some. It just isn't my deal.

I could make almost the exact same arguments for Formula 1. At least Formula 1 cars ARE cutting edge technology. But this league is also mired by dollars and an incredible list of rules. These big league races want to keep competition close (a good thing) but it just seems making the teams conform to huge rule sets is not the best way to go about it. I keep one eye on Formula 1 too just as I do NASCAR, and I'll give 'em this: this last 2008 season was the best one in a long time. All props to Schuey, probably the greatest race driver in history, but with him out, a lot of the excitment (for people other than Ferrari fans) is back in. His absence is NOT the only reason, but I think it probably helps.

Similar bullet points for open wheel racing in other leagues, like IRL and (in times past) Champ Cars/CART. But these leagues had the additional burden of politics. And not just the kind of personality politics that can make NASCAR interesting at times, but bullshit suits-making-decisions politics.

I don't follow drag racing much either. I admire the enormous work that goes into making a car go as fast as possible, hold to the road, and not blow up. I think to be involved, as driver or crew, is probably pretty exciting (and I enjoy the video game version of the sport), but watching it doesn't engross me. It's over so fast there doesn't seem to be enough time to appreciate driver ability before-- WHOOOSH-- its over and there's another car up on the marks. I would never say there is no driver talent because keeping one of those monsters under control while you shift perfectly (or at least better than the other driver) is more than most people could do.

I follow sports car and rally racing. That'd be SuperGT, GrandAm, and American LeMans, along with various Speed Channel and Touring or GT events in Europe for sports cars, and WRC for Rally racing. Sports car racing covers a lot of different classes of car. Some don't really have an analogy to a car you can just buy and drive yourself, particularly the prototype classes in GrandAm and ALMS. But the cars in the majority of classes closely resemble their street counterparts, particularly if you like to mod street cars, and the manufacturers are frequently more directly involved or support privateer teams. Much of the technology or even the parts themselves are streetable. Hey, their headlights have to work. You can't get by with stickers. You might be driving at night, or in the rain, or through mud and snow (in rally races). They have lists of rules to keep driving close, but it doesn't seem as restrictive as the really big money leagues. Adding weights to winners may seem odd, but I think it beats the shit out of having all the cars conform to a template. And these races aren't just around ovals, like stock car racing. You gotta turn right too. Or go up a hill. Or through a tunnel. It doesn't allow the cars to just blaze around the whole track at 200mph... theres' finesse involved. Which is probably why a lot of NASCAR drivers just throw their hands up at the couple of road races they have to run each year. Or get ringers with road racing experience like Boris Said. You can see some really high speeds in these races (the ultimate probably being the Nurburgring in Germany or the Lusanne Straight at LeMans in France. But this type of racing requires more than taking your foot on and off the gas and knowing how to bump around in a pack of sheet metal.

If your an import tuner fan, sports car or rally racing should be your sport (along with some drag racing and drifting). A lot of the culture and technology dovetails really well with street tuning methodology. Like that Nissan Z or a Suburu Impreza you saw at the car show? Sports car teams run the Z and rally teams run the Impreza. You want to put Eibach springs on your car? Chances are a sports car team out there is running some version of them.

So my video game playing tends to mirror what racing I catch on television. Unfortunately I don't live in a burg that has a racetrack. The weather here is actually detrimental to tuning cars or even owning a decent ride. In amongst my dreams of moving from here, I include the fantasy about buying a ride and fixing it up. It'd be nice to move past just being an armchair driver. But you do what you can do.

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