I have mentioned before that there seems to be a great deal of sportscar racing these days – the month of May was congested generally, and July and August are particularly busy if you are involved in the American Le Mans Series.
In theory, this is good for spectators and entrants alike, as there is clearly a greater supply of sportscar races than there is a demand. However, this means of course that the quality of the individual events is somewhat less. Just as in Formula 1 racing (I do struggle to call them Grands Prix), there may be too much.
The same tendency is now happening in the field of historic racing cars. So far this year we have had the Monaco Historique, the Le Mans Classic and with the Silverstone Classic and the Goodwood Revival meetings still to come there is ample opportunity to see historic cars of all shapes and sizes in some wonderful settings. And now I read of the ‘Legends of Motorsports’ to be run at Sebring in December.
There had to be a ‘but’, didn’t there? And I have to admit that I haven’t been to, nor am I planning to go to any of these events this year. I used to go regularly to Silverstone, to what was then the ‘Coys Historic Festival’ (no need to use the word ‘Classic’ then), and I have been to Goodwood’s Revival, although that was a good few years ago as well now. I enjoyed visiting the Masters Festival at Brand Hatch on the late May Bank Holiday weekend earlier this year: as always at such events, the access to the paddock was marvellous, and my son relished the opportunity to sit in a 1960’s Ford Mustang, whose driver was happy to stop and chat.
I was tempted to suggest that ‘Classic Racing’ is an oxymoron, but that would be unfair. I much prefer the term ‘Historic Racing’, and I am the first to say how much I enjoy seeing old cars out on the track and competing, much more than in museums. I do like museums by the way, but I fear that might the subject of a different essay. What I dislike is (a) when owners of historic machinery restore them beyond ‘reasonable limits’ to be more competitive and (b) when competitiveness becomes excessive and the racing gets out of perspective.
There is probably a greater disparity in driver talents in historic racing than in any other form of motor sport. I find it a shame that some of the ‘heroes’ of historic racing haven’t been able to find recognition elsewhere. Drivers like Martin Stretton, Barrie Williams, Frank Sytner and Gerry Marshall all competed in contemporary cars as well, but were undoubtedly at their peaks when driving historic cars. And at the same time, wealthy amateurs were having a go in their pride and joy – but did it really matter who won? Well, yes, of course it did, but you weren’t going to re-write the history book as a result.
What Historic (or Classic) racing lacks is gravitas. At the end of the day, winning in a historic race does not make the Ferrari 512P quicker, slower, better or worse than a Porsche 917. Particularly if the pair of them get beaten by a Lola T70 Mk III. Indeed those are all anyway somewhat subjective matters. What matters is whether the car won in its day or not. I doubt whether historic racing in forty years time will involve Peugeot 908s or Audi R15s, but if it does, and a Peugeot wins, it will not change the fact that Audi scored a clean sweep of the podium positions at Le Mans this year. That was important. That was what the manufacturers were spending millions of Euros trying to do.
A favourite car of mine is the Aston Martin DBR1 that won Le Mans in 1959. It is great that the very same car often appears in Classic races, as well that it often wins. But there is a danger that the notion enters the consciousness of the common fan that this car was dominant. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that it won the Le Mans 24 hour race was totally unexpected (and a credit to John Wyer’s skill as a master tactician).
It’s a bit like having a tour around a WWII battleship. You can stare up and marvel at the big guns, squash down into the rating’s quarters, or stand up on the bridge and gaze through the windows, narrow your eyes and visualise an enemy coastline. But you can’t truly imagine the emotion of being in the heat of battle without talking to someone who was really there, and is prepared to talk to you about it.
That’s why folk like Stirling Moss, David Piper, Richard Attwood and Jackie Oliver are important. Get them out in the cars, and their juices start to flow. What’s important is to listen. Learn from history and you have the chance not to repeat it – I know, I am paraphrasing, but therein lies truth.
I’ve got nothing against historic racing in general. The very fact that it is hugely popular with spectators and competitors, is not (always) outrageously expensive and it provides a way of extending the active life of cars that might otherwise stay in garages is a vindication of the genre. And if the opportunity would arise, I would go to any of the events I have mentioned without hesitation. But not all of them.
My concern is that these events represent organisers attempting to cash in on commercial benefits and once again offer us, the consumer, more than is good for us. A lack of moderation seems to be a sign of the times we live in.