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.
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.
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.
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.