View From the Soap Box: The “Wussification” of Off-Road Racing – race-deZert.com

View From the Soap Box: The “Wussification” of Off-Road Racing

This sport used to be about toughness. It was the NFL of motorsports.

It was about testing your mettle. You know the cliché’: “Man versus man. Man versus machine. Man versus the elements”…that kind of deal.  Off-road racing was cloaked in a well-deserved aura under which its competitors lived the cowboy spirit and the sport thrived by being a modern version of the Wild West.

Off-road racing is, in it’s purest form, brutal, dusty and brilliantly violent.  Any driver who has taken a section of whoops at just the right speed or hit a huge jump perfectly or had the satisfaction of given a little love tap to a competitor after chasing them through the dust knows exactly what I’m talking about.

But lately we have entered into a sadly revolting era of “wussification.”

No, I am certainly not referring to this past weekend’s advent of two qualified women making their debut in the Trophy-Truck class. Heidi Steele and Jessica McMillin taking that ultimate plunge is not only a desert racing PR juggernaut, but it also validates the viability of the sport’s nearly forgotten “ladder system.” Corry Weller’s rather auspicious debut in 2012 as LOORRS Pro-4 “Rookie of the Year” carries similar merit.

My concern is simple — a form of motorsports once characterized by free-thinking innovation and “piss in your blood” endurance immortalized by guys named Stroppe, Parnelli, Walker, Mickey, Corky and the “Ironman” sadly is becoming a distant memory. That rather noble culture is dangerously close to being an unrecognizable environment tainted by corporate politics, loud mouthed self-aggrandizing and a downright whiny, sissy-boy mentality previously reserved for NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1.

The 1976 Mint 400
Walker Evans and Bill Stroppe at the 1976 Mint 400

It wasn’t so long ago that off-road racing’s principle marketing asset for sponsors and manufacturers — be it the desert, short course of stadium variety — was as a proving ground for performance and reliability in the toughest of circumstances. Since the earliest days of the Mexican 1000, our lifestyles’ fundamental attraction was about overcoming the elements and being “Baja Proven” or “Baja Tough.” That simple, universal message was the backbone of the sport: nothing more and nothing less.

And for years, those outside our immediate world used to hear me wax poetic about off-road racing’s seemingly timeless ability to do two things: stay relevant to multiple generations and remain a place for independent, self-reliant individuals to find a kind of spiritual freedom almost extinct in today’s overly regulated world. That was the powerful magic our subculture held over almost everything else in racing. And over and over again, professional racers like Jimmy Vasser, Roberto Guerrero, Danny Sullivan, the Groff brothers, Mario Andretti and even Paul Newman, people I had the good fortune of exposing to our world, expressed the very same thing; that off-road racing was beautiful because it was pure, unencumbered and a throwback to simpler time.

Not anymore.

No, now our culture is alarmingly being shaped by a false mindset based on the notion that a democracy of universal access to all is a good thing. It’s not. Opening up an online dialog discussing the merits of the latest Class 10 engine rules or why Class 5 VW Baja Bugs should or shouldn’t run Subaru power plants is fine as entertainment but ridiculous in practice. Most of those participating in these public discussions don’t race and therefore don’t have a dog in the fight. Hey this isn’t AYSO soccer, and not everyone is deserving of a trophy or false entitlement. Instead, I say we would be much better served adhering to a more black and white mentality that says:

  • Attention race promoters, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. In fact, you can’t please most of the people most of the time.
  • Attention racers, if you wish to enjoy competing on as level of a playing field as can be found in today’s overregulated motorsports arena, here are the rules.

Take a look at last year’s Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, followed by the BITD Parker 425 and then this past weekend’s MasterCraft Safety SCORE San Felipe 250 (or is it the Baja 250?).  Three of desert racing’s biggest events were all diminished in terms of professionalism and credibility by apparent winners not being winners due to rules infractions, rules interpretations and, well, too many rules.

A Baja 1000 victory by the Vildosola team is overturned by an online, post-race video that gives the win to B.J. Baldwin days after the race is over and a final ulcer to Sal Fish. In Parker, a violation by Robby Gordon and his helicopter’s air support results in Jason Voss being deemed the event’s winner. And now, a victory by Bryce Menzies at the San Felipe 250 is overturned after the race and becomes a win by the Vildosola camp hours later.

What the hell?  When did our sport denigrate itself down to an exercise in GPS tracking, post-race video testimony and in-car camera proof of innocence or guilt?  What’s next, co-drivers Tweeting complaints or supposed infractions from inside the racecar?

But, to me, those incidents are not the only examples of how far we have fallen. In the days of old, giving a “love tap” to a competitor you have run down was considered a deserved act well within the sport’s unwritten rules. As long as this ritual was not destructive to a fellow competitors chance of finishing an event, I was always comfortable in inflicting a bit of “bump and run” to a slower racer – just as long as I did it the right way. If they did a “jackrabbit” after that or didn’t move over when there was space to safely do so, then another, slightly harder tap was in order. If you don’t go into a race knowing that the front and rear bumpers are disposable tools of the trade, go find another sport.

bap_nerf

And in terms of the rules, who knows the answer but maybe it’s time to take a serious look at some radical ideas. How about banning in-car GPS units and going back to good old-fashioned course markers for the races themselves? Perhaps we should ban helicopters too, or have the Trophy-Truck and Class 1 teams pool their resources so that they can have a few non-biased air-support spotters and EMTs for safety?

More importantly for the long term good of the sport, let’s go back to the whole off-roader as modern day cowboy concept.

Those now classic BFGoodrich Ford Rough Rider team posters reinforced an admittedly romantic notion that our sport’s heroes like John Swift, Rob MacCachren, Dan Smith, Dave Ashley, Manny Esquerra, Chuck Johnson and the Simon brothers were modern-day John Waynes come to life. Hey, let’s face it, for much of our collective history nothing could have been closer to the truth. I can’t imagine any of those guys being caught dead doing a “Harlem Shake” video so their social media value would grow.

But, as time has ticked into the future, technology especially has placed these fundamental ideologies into question.  It all boils down to a deeper philosophy – rules versus principles.

As author James P. Owen so eloquently observed in his book Cowboy Ethics, “rules can always be bent, but principles cannot. So while bureaucratic rules may reinforce the ways we ought to behave, they are no substitute for personal principles.”

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to stop and try to find the higher road, to look at examples of guys like Malcolm Smith, Rob Mac, Ryan Arciero, Macrae Glass, Doug Fortin, Ryan Thomas, Cameron Steele and countless others that go about their business, stay positive, be humble and let their driving – and winning – do the talking for them. Or remember that Walker, Ivan, Parnelli and Mickey wouldn’t have gone public if they were pissed off at you, they would have had private conversations – perhaps behind the woodshed — if that was needed.

Sal Fish used to have it just right. When anybody came up to him and complained about anything, his famous response was always: “hey, this is off-road racing – it’s not for wussies.”

Amen to that.

marty_fiolka_soap_box

27 Comments

  1. I’ve been following from the distance all the noise that went after the B1K and past editions (the same with SF250 and others). IMHO: The root of the problem is simply Prerrunning and the comodization of Desert Racing.

    This is the root of the problem and turned into a d*ck measurement contest (the one with biggest one, wins!). Getting GPS support is nice but the race course should be given 12-18 hours before the start to avoid ‘Prerunners’. This of course needs to have a VERY detailed racecourse with exact notation of washes and silt zones (if there’s silt before the TT/C1 gangs, will be much more when Class 11 heros arrive).

    Eliminating prerrunning, avoids the chances of choosing ‘creative lines’ and those all the problems derived of this.

    Sticking to the racecourse is VITAL (and if you don’t stick to it and you’ll get caught, don’t crybaby after). CVS should be SECRET and no one should know where are (this enforces the need of sticking to the racecourse).

    Many will argue how you get then the GPS data for the racecourse? Easy: Included in the race fees I don’t see so much problem for adding the cost of a 1Gig SD card with data that will be handed at the end of contingency row. Only you need to state when sending race inscription is which format you want it (surely 99.99999999% for Lowrance machines).

  2. I hope Roger Norman reads this, thinks pretty well about the future of BAJA racing and turns desert racing to what it used to be, pure adrenaline, freedom and no more RULESRULESRULES

  3. it’s nice to dream, can I go back to the days when I wasn’t at my desk NO ONE could find me or reach me too

  4. It’s about time someone said it…thanks for writing it. Now if we could stop making everyone overly protected and we could get back to racing like men once did that would be amazing. I personally squeeze my scrotum sac with two hands until I feel moderate pain. The pain is the indication that they are connected to my brain and therefore any stupidity will cause pain and consequences that I’m responsible for; not anyone else.

  5. well were we get to race in the middle of the country they still use wood stakes, colored and stacked arrows for markers, when i watched races when i was a little kid they used paper plates. not much has changed out here, other then offroad racing dissapered for 20 years, you have to drive 6 hours to race others with the same interest, not as many vehicles as there used to be back in the day, theres a handfull of real trucks around and the rest are as grassroots as the races. which makes it fun. I read about the smaller organizations races and some in mexico thats sound like there real racers for fun, not $$$

  6. Didn’t you mean the “Pussification” of off-road racing? Or were you trying to be politically correct? And if so, does that mean you are guilty too?

    Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. The time we are living in now, will some day be referred to as the “glory days” or even maybe the “golden era.” My first Baja 1000 was in 1981. I haven’t missed one since. To me, there were just as many cry babies, cheaters, and overall “pussies” back then as there are now.

    It is easy to blame technology as the downfall to many things, but if you are going to take away GPS from the sport, why not take away bypass shocks and 40″+ tires? This makes no sense.

    I also do not understand why enforcing the rules of the sport is taking away from the glory of what it used to be. The sport has to have rules. And with that, you will have rule breakers. Just because it was much more difficult to penalize people for breaking the rules in the early years of the sport, doesn’t mean it is right. In fact, it takes huge balls to be a race promoter like Casey Folks and Roger Norman and penalize or disqualify your own participants. Especially ones with big sponsors. Casey and Roger are acting a lot more like cowboys than wussies to me. In-fact, I would argue that inaction is the mother of all Wussiness.

    Off-road racing deserves respect in my opinion. Of course you need to be tough. The guys I know, the guys I admire in off-road racing are tough. Was my father tougher because he won the vast majority of his races driving solo without GPS? Maybe. But I know he didn’t like everything that was done and said in the 1980’s and 1990’s just as he doesn’t agree with it all today. The sport is still the most difficult form of motorsports filled with incredible talent and innovation.

    RDC, Facebook, and Twitter are not the enemies. Your point Marty would have no more impact if you bypassed all these modern forms of communication and typed your letter into the Dusty Times. Most of embrace it, and hopefully use it to the sport’s benefit and ours.

    To me, it all boils down to personalities. There were pussies then, and there are pussies now. But whether you do the Harlem Shake or take up Ballroom Dancing is not the determining factor. It’s how you conduct yourself and the rules you live by.

  7. Hey Chad…your points are all valid and I appreciate one of the sports’ best and brightest chiming. in. I used the “wussification” comment not to be PC but, in fact, to stay in keeping with Sal’s often-used comment that is the final thought on this column.

    There is no question that technology is a good thing and has its rightful place. Nobody has more respect for how awesome the vehicle technology, and the rising level of driving talent, than I do. And certainly I never intended to suggest anything but the utmost respect for the difficult job that Casey, Roger and all the race promoters have on their hands.

    I think for me the bottom line is that collectively we need to make sure that somehow we prevent the sport from going down a slippery slope of electronics and micromanaging too many rules becomes quagmire of lawsuits or worse. I will admit I am a bit of an off-road racing purist, but I have also been around many, many professional race car drivers, media and sponsors that admire our sport, its environment and culture precisely because their form of “big league” racing had forgotten what made it so great is the first place.

    That’s all I am really hoping to preserve — how the sport gets there is the question.

    1. It seems like a bit of a double edge sword. Those professional motorsports racers from other genres may admire the spirit of desert racing but aside from an occassional forray into a litlte fun, none of them are remotely interested in giving up their “professional” racing to be desert racers.

      In my opinion, you can’t have your cake and eat it to. You can’t cling to the notion of the golden era of desert racing from point A to point B by any means necessary and at the same time hope to elevate the sport to the level the other mainstream motorsports are operating at.

      Any attempt to promote the sport on a national and even international level is going to require all of the things you mentioned as bad. Well, maybe not the internet bickering. But certainly the creative new use of social media to attract sponsors and fanbases, tracking technology and rules to attempt to ensure order and fairness, etc. The sport can either remain true to the spirit of the “old days” and stay motorsports best kept secret, or it can change with the times and continue to seek ways to elevate the sports status.

      But it can do both, in my opinion.

  8. Right on Marty, I agree with you. Maybe for different reasons, but you have certainly done a tremendous amount to promote the sport and represent it properly. And that is not an easy job, so thank you!

  9. I tend to agree with Chad here. Social media does not a wuss make. Such is the climate of the current business landscape and off-road racing is a business, for promoters and for team owners.

  10. Another thought:

    I’d LOVE for you to come back here to the Midwest, look a group of dyed-in-the-wool sportsman racers in the face and say their sport is becoming “wussified”.

  11. I think there is a happy medium, but I think we need to keep it real. This culture is bad ass because it is born out of chaos, and that’s beautiful and scary all wrapped into on big complicated thing. The people that have shaped this culture thrive on the edge of the unknown, but I think there is a way to capture the essence without ruining it. It just has to be run by people who love it. Greed and fear kill everything good. Remember we are racing because fighting is illegal!

  12. Interesting posts, but…I wonder how many involved in the sport today would really like to return to the “good old days”? Desert Racing today has become big business, it is expensive to compete, sponsors and race teams spend astronomical amounts of money on their vehicles, and there are many businesses which derive significant amounts of income directly and peripherally from this sport, so we owe it to our sponsors and team members to run a high quality, fair minded and well regulated sport. This requires rules, regulation, and cooperation from those who organize, compete and regulate our sport. Rules are used to define principles, without them our sport would degenerate into a mass of confusion, aggravation, and embarrassment. We as users of public and private lands for our events MUST maintain the highest level of integrity and our treatment of our competitors, spectators, and those who regulate the use of these lands, like the BLM, and US Fish and Game here in the States, and various private and public land holders in Mexico, must be assured that we adhere to these rules without question. To do less will only insure the demise of the sport, and while that would make many of our detractors very happy, it would make me very sad.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree Marty. The class 10 engine rules are a good example of what can happen when a few whiners get across the board changes to benefit themselves because they are getting outrun. I am also against GPS, other than maybe an internal device to detect course cutting with no display or communications outbound. I feel it has made desert racing into another form of rally racing. For the same reason, I think pre-running should be outlawed. One thing I don’t recall you mention, is the proliferation of classes. I say, so what? If someone wants to have a class of purple cars with Edsel motors only, why not? Why not take their entry fee and let them race. Sure they will likely be all alone, but who cares? If someone wants to race a big class, pick one. It is usually the front runners who don’t want any change, and the back markers who want it. Everyone wants a class they can win in.

  14. I’ve been thinking the same. Sure are a lot of sensitive guys out there whining about this and that. I think rules are necessary and penalties needed for breaking them.

    I respect those who race hard and fast but within the rules, not lawyerball style because of some missing punctuation in the rule book.

    Thanks for the article

  15. Being from North Carolina and a NASCAR transplant to desert racing, (Pre dust to glory) I saw the down side that pointing a network TV camera at that sport brought forth in the 80’s. In trying to capture the ‘badassness’ of the sport and deliver it to the masses, you create celebrities. Celebrities have a responsibility to the sport that funds and created them. In an attempt to manage them (amd to controll the money) NASCAR started writing rule laced scripts for the drama with the firm hand of a dictator. (AKA The France family). Now it is a patheticly overly regulated, motorized, soap opera. I was drawn to off road racing to get away from this! I’ll be damned if the afore mentioned punks arent screwing up this sport now! I have spent a little time with Marty in a Locos Mocos pit, helping to patch his race car up to finish the 1000. I also had the pleasure of talking with him again at the TORC race in Charlotte. The man eats, lives and breathes this sport and puts his money where his mouth is. I respect that, and agree with his editorial on the Wuss factor 100 percent. Guys like Rob Mac and Larry Rossler are a great example of whats right with this sport. There are Class Acts abound throughout the sport and we need more of them. As far as the afore mentioned wuss/puss crowd goes… A water cooled check book, helecopters, Energy drink fueled videos and just generally being a ass hat, will never earn you a real man card. Here or anywhere else.

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