Peter Brock: For better or worse, the world of motorsports is always changing

Photograph Courtesy Lotus

Motor racing history is a fascinating subject because of the few innovative thinkers who’ve literally transformed the sport and, with it, the average person’s perceptions of what most of us call racing. It began in the early 1900s, when four brilliant French racing mechanics with Peugeot, forever known as Les Charlatans, created what eventually evolved into the most successful racing engine in America–an engine that dominated oval track racing here for more than 50 years. Since then, we’ve seen a constant but rare series of brilliant innovations that have literally refined every segment of our sport.  

No matter what the specific type of racing, there will always be someone or some tight group who sets a higher standard or sometimes even creates some device, component or method of accomplishing something better than the competition. Jim Hall of Midland, Texas, was such a man. He was so successful in the Can-Am era that some of his ideas were banned because they simply made it almost impossible for others to compete. 

When his cars were gone, Porsche then created a different mechanical wonder that essentially killed the series. We’re all the poorer for its demise, but we’re forever fortunate that it even existed for those of us who were there to watch.

John Cooper in the U.K. was wise and canny enough, just after World War II, to invent the mid-engine racing car that literally transformed all of racing, while other intellects of speed, like Colin Chapman and Frank Costin, were concentrating on their specialties of light weight and low-drag aerodynamics.

Every era and type of motorsport seems to blossom and eventually fade. It’s simply the result of continuing imaginative innovation that encourages such individuals or aligned thinkers. Their contributions can so profoundly change the status quo that every segment of competition either changes, dies off or is outlawed. Frank Lockhart would have given us more than the intercooler had he not been killed in the fastest and most beautiful of his creations.

Sometimes it isn’t the machines of an era that sparkle and fade but the circuits on which they competed. The glorious, high-banked board track era of the late ’20s died off after some 15 years simply because the untreated lumber in those surfaces deteriorated. By then, the price of timber had become so expensive that there was no way to replace them. 

Same might be said of the upright Sprinters and the great dirt tracks of the ’50s they so dominated with some of the bravest ’shoes in all of racing history. It was also the development of the more sophisticated “offset” Indy roadsters, dreamed up by prodigies like Frank Kurtis, A.J. Watson and George Salih, that eventually diverted that segment into the higher-speed paved ovals that again changed the sport. The roadsters’ superiority eventually killed off the dozens of amazing fairground dirt rings and the unique skills of racers like Bill Vukovich who made them famous. 

Road racing in America, a latecomer in the early ’50s, was always a second cousin to the classic, highly sophisticated European road circuits with their long, high-speed sweepers and seemingly endless straights. These tracks created the need for low-drag aero that ended one era and began another. 

Ever-increasing speeds everywhere finally became so dangerous that organizers had to figure ways to artificially limit terminal velocities for spectator safety and their own financial survival. The horrific deaths at Le Mans in 1955 so changed authoritarian governmental perception of racing that the sport might well have been outlawed altogether had not such changes been forced. 

Speaking of being outlawed, by the time you read this, I will have returned from the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where several World of Outlaws racers will have competed. New ideas are welcome in this four-night elimination extravaganza that rises to a fever pitch for the Saturday night A-main event. 

I’m looking forward to seeing the results. A radical new engine design, competing there for the very first time–conceived, designed and built by retired ex-Corvette factory crew chief Dan Binks in his home garage–may well again change the game. 

It’s the kind of creativity I so admire and miss in many other race series, where most of what now passes for innovation is simply the result of collectively gathered electronic data.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Porsche, Peter Brock, Column, Chili Bowl, Les Charlatans, Colin Chapman, Jim Hall, John Cooper, Frank Costin and Frank Lockhart articles.
More like this
View comments on the CMS forums
Panamericano New Reader
3/29/23 12:06 p.m.

Mr. Brock's last paragraph is so true.  Most series now are spec or so tightly ruled as to be almost spec series.  All in the name of close racing for a better show.  Boo.  Real racing is about someone having better ideas, or execution, and naturely leads to a team dominating.  Witness Mercedes in several eras and Red Bull now.  Let them RACE!

a7pilot New Reader
3/30/23 8:17 a.m.

Agree with Panamericano to some degree. But is auto racing about the vehicle development or driver skill? Formula 1 is boring because there seems that one manufacturer always has the better car and the winning formula is the car with any driver. Not sure about today, but SCCA club racing use to be (and still could be) about car preperation and driver skill.

OJR New Reader
4/1/23 9:25 a.m.

Close to 70 years ago on Memorial day, Pa would run a cord for the radio so we could listen to the Indy 500 and plant the garden. Different chassis, different motors with different sounds and it was great. Now I don't care if I watch it live in color or not.

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that you could buy a used production car, add safety equipment and tweaks as budget would allow and enter the 24 hours of Daytona. Now you have to buy a half million dollar racecar for most pro series.


Our Preferred Partners