Avoidable Contact #90: The enduro crowd is trying to take the bull out of bullfighting

neon wheel hop avoidable contact jack baruth
Jack Baruth

You’ve all read the quote, although most of the time it gets attributed to Ernest Hemingway rather than its likely originator, American matador and bon vivant Barnaby Conrad:

“Only bullfighting, mountain climbing, and auto racing are sports, the rest are merely games.”

Chances are you’ve also read this next quote, or perhaps even heard it, courtesy of Aryton Senna:

“Being a racing driver means you are racing with other people, and if you no longer go for a gap that exists you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing.”

There’s an uncomfortable connection between these two quotes, and it goes a little something like this: The difference between a sport and a game is that a sport can kill you, and kill you in the normal course of events rather than through a freak incident or unknown medical problem. A coward can play a game, but a coward cannot play a sport. That being said, merely participating in the sport is not enough. You have to be willing to take every worthwhile risk, otherwise you’re not really there.

Since Senna’s death, much has been done at every level of motorsport to make it (for lack of a better phrase) less of a “sport” and more of a “game.” The requirements for both rollcage construction and personal safety gear have expanded to the point where I spend a more than a thousand dollars every year just keeping all my belts, fire systems, and personal equipment up to spec. The results have been measurable. We’ve averaged fewer than three deaths per year in club and professional four-wheeled motorsport for the past 15 years. I’ve been present for two of them; my competition-school classmate John Engle died in 2007 while I sat in grid for the other race group of the day, and I was directly behind Court Summerfield at Altamont in 2008 when his Volvo departed the line and struck the wall nose-first. Still, this is a far cry from, say, the blood-soaked ’60s or ’70s.

The new safety equipment really works. It’s been years since anyone died in a club race like the ones in which I participate. I no longer in any way believe that I am putting my life at any risk when I get in a race car. Realistically speaking, I’m in more danger every time I ride in a lift-served downhill mountain bike park. I’m pretty sure I’m at more statistical risk during the drive to and from the racetrack than I am when I’m under green flag conditions.

That’s a good thing. I don’t require that my sport be tragically elevated by human sacrifice. In an ideal world, we’d never see another racing death. We can probably all agree on that, right?

What we probably cannot all agree on, by contrast, is whether or not there should be any risk in racing. While idly thumbing through social media recently, I came across a post by a well-respected club racer and series champion that said, basically, “All racing should be zero-contact. If you hit another car, you should be disqualified. That Senna quote about gaps is trash. If you can’t pass someone without taking a risk, you shouldn’t do it.” I just about choked on my Lucky Charms when I read that. It didn’t help that at the time I was serving out a short timeout penalty for aggressive bumping in a club race just a few weeks prior.

Let me be forthright about my personal position here: A race in which there is not only zero contact but also zero possibility for contact—well, I don’t see any point in that race. Races like that are contested, and won, in the garage during the weeks and months before said race. They are mere contests of preparation, not actual races, and the driving has nothing to do with it.

I can hear you now: “That’s ridiculous. You still have to drive fast and well.” Let me tell you, everyone drives fast and well nowadays. We all have access to all the data, all the training methods. Just put an ApexPro up on your dash and drive the car around a racetrack every weekend until all the lights are green, all the time. I can train anyone to be a competitive time-trials driver, and I mean anyone. The pros out there, like Ross Bentley, Peter Krause, and Aaron Povoledo, can do it even better and faster than I can. Garmin has a new training tool that will tell you exactly where to drive on track and how fast to go. The old days of Bob Bondurant deliberately driving the wrong line when someone else was behind him on track, lest said driver learn his secrets, are long over.

If anybody can drive fast, what’s left? Well, at the pro level there’s stuff like managing the resources in the car, ensuring track position for pit strategy, and so on. At the club level, there is what tailors call the “rock of eye.” The ability to predict what the other drivers will do and to out-think, or out-maneuver, them on the fly. The ability to choose a strategy and not back off. In other words, the ability to go for a gap that exists … or one you think will exist. As an example, let’s look at this race start featuring seven great NASA Super Touring drivers and one washed-up has-been in a Plymouth Neon that qualified dead last:

About 30 percent of this worst-to-first start comes courtesy of having more torque than the competition, thanks to a minivan-sourced 2.4-liter engine that can’t breathe above 5000 rpm but which can pull hard when the green flag waves. The rest of it is just having an idea of where the pack will move, and making the appropriate choices. Every car in this video turned a faster qualifying lap than the Neon, and they were all driven perfectly well, but they didn’t have the rock of eye. Note that no contact happens in this video. It’s close but no cigar. It should also be mentioned that three of these fine sporting cars passed me in the 20 minutes that followed, through the admirable method of just pulling out on the back straight and driving by my janky minivan/Neon hybrid as it buzzed and hissed at 4800 rpm. Sometimes the rock of eye is no substitute for what you can accomplish in the garage before a race.

Here’s a better, though older, example: Hagerty contributor Brian Makse making it through an absolute insane series of crashes at the start of a Micra Cup race in Canada. (Ignore the “no-video” graphic and press play, it will work.)

Brian has the rock of eye. He knows where to go and he doesn’t lift off. Note that every car ahead of Brian qualified better and faster than he did. There are a lot of fast drivers everywhere nowadays. But they didn’t have the rock of eye. Their vision wasn’t right. They drove into the crash instead of through it.

You can’t teach the rock of eye. You either have it or you don’t. If you’ve ever wondered why some famous racers are such terrible, egotistical, insufferable people, now you know. It’s their absolute confidence in having what others don’t.

How do you know if you have the rock of eye? Well, you have to get out there on track and give it a shot. If most of your risks pay off, congratulations. If they don’t, then you should go race enduros.

Modern endurance racing, of course, is largely done under no-contact rules in which, and I quote from several rulebooks, “a successful pass is the joint responsibility of both cars involved.” In practice, this means that cars of approximately equal capability can’t get a pass done unless it’s at the end of a long straight or through the accidental fate of being balked by slower traffic. It also means you can’t deliberately block other racers, which is sad because I love blocking other racers more than I love almost anything in this world.

There’s a reason the enduro rules are written this way: it ensures that most of the cars finish the race. An enduro race without these rules would be … well, it would be the 24 Hours Of Lemons from 2007–12, which is to say a bare-knuckle brawl in which people often modified their cars with exterior rollcages and/or deliberate impact structures placed behind the bumpers and fenders. When my team won Lemons at Flat Rock in 2007, we started the day with an undamaged car and finished it with one that literally did not have 12 clear inches in any direction between dents and impact marks. Even the roof had dents, thanks to hits from other cars that bent the unibody beneath it.

Another reason: many of the enduro series field really nice cars nowadays—$150,000 cars, $250,000 cars. And more expensive than that. The people who own those cars don’t want to have dents on them. It looks bad on social media. There’s also the little question of who pays for that? One of my enduro-team drivers dented the corner of a Ferrari 458 Challenge car at Mid-Ohio a few years ago; when I saw the owner in pit lane I apologized but didn’t offer to pay the bill. That’s racing. Or at least it used to be.

For these and many other reasons, I can see why the enduro races are no-contact. I can even kind of see why Porsche Club and BMW Club races have a “13/13 rule” designed to prevent contact. Wouldn’t want to spoil the parties afterwards. I also understand that no-contact races attract a significantly broader and far saner array of competitors/clients/customers. All of this, I get.

What I don’t get is why the people who race Neons and Miatas and Civics in sprint races would want to adopt no-contact, enduro-style rules to what should be a bunch of 25-minute knife-fights. Yet this is the prevailing opinion, everywhere from NASA to SCCA to the no-contact races of the Gridlife Touring Championship. Why? The fenders on my car are worth $125 each. Let’s dent ’em. The total cash value of a “tub” chassis for a Spec Miata is about 2000 bucks. So let’s run door-to-door down the back straight and let the chips fall where they may, alright?

I’m not suggesting deliberate contact, or least I’m not suggesting much of it. What I am suggesting is aggression. Let’s race hard. Let’s take chances, which means taking risks. Let’s go for a gap. No, I won’t like it when you misjudge the gap and you ruin the race for both of us—but I’d rather race with someone like that than participate in a weekly parade-float procession where the best engine always wins.

In other words, let’s be racers. Let’s race. Let’s go for those gaps. Let’s take a few risks. We live in a world where “risk” is the dirtiest of words. Companies won’t hire anyone who looks “risky.” You can’t say anything in public because you’ll be “doxxed” out of your job, your home, your kids’ schools. We’re currently bankrupting the whole world, or at least the United States, in the name of reducing risk. It’s become the modern religion. Everything has to be SAFE in all capital letters. This is not a mode of existence Barnaby Conrad or Ernest Hemingway would recognize. I don’t want my son to think I endorse it, lest he accept it and wind up living in his mother’s basement until he is 40 years old.

If we race without the possibility of contact, we are taking the bull out of the bullfighting, or the mountain out of the mountain climbing. Do you want that? I don’t. I’m not in the racing game to minimize my risk, to keep a squeaky-clean show car, to parade-float my way around a racetrack to see if I can polish a valve stem better than the dude next to me on the grid.

The heck with that. I’m here to race. And I hope you are too. Like Henry V, I invite you to shed your blood—or at least dent your fenders—with me. In that endeavor, as on the field at Agincourt, we will draw closer to nobility. And we will be racers, together. We’re not here to play games.

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