Tuesday, August 16, 2011

ESPN3 Digest III

Editor's note: ESPN3 Digest is a weekly series, in which one or several noteworthy events streaming freely on the Worldwide Leader's oddly comprehensive web channel are highlighted for your edification and (hopefully) delight. Times are Eastern, events are resolutely non-essential.
"Aerodynamics are for people who can't build engines."
—Enzo Ferrari
Saturday August 20th
3:15 PM: American Le Mans Series at Road America

For the most car-obsessed country on the planet, America sure does have a pretty bullshit car racing menu. NASCAR, for all that it has the hands-down coolest genesis story, is fundamentally a bunch of identical sedans jamming around a banked oblong.1 If you step beyond that, your main remaining options are drag racing and funny cars, which I'm pretty sure are just a cross breed between drag racers and NASCAR cars. Our racing turns, should you even want them, shall be either 90° or 180°.
1: I'm not saying there's no skill in NASCAR; that argument is plain stupid. But I am saying that all the skill there is in NASCAR is in Le Mans and Formula One racing, with more skill besides.
Enzo Ferrari, facts aside, must have been American. American automobiles have been stuck in a cult of horsepower since pretty much always, with no real thought given to other contingencies. Our racing lodestars2 are the deuce coupe, the Mustang, and the 70s muscle car, all of which have roughly the same level of steering technology as my bathtub. Get a big enough engine, my son, and the roads are yours. In a country with a mapping ethos formed by the Northwest Ordinance, it makes some sense. If you're racing stoplight to stoplight on the gridded expanse of the Great Plains, why should handling be more important than a bench seat where you can canoodle with your 50's stereotype girlfriend? The same badass democratic bootleggers that birthed NASCAR trapped us: our racing is our driving writ large, boiled down to its essence and supercharged.
2: Sure you can have several lodestars, shut up.
The rest of the world, at least to the extent that it cares about such things, is more entertained with Rally Car racing and Formula One, both of which seem much more interesting. Instead of sending cars down a straight line or elementary school geometric figure, these race them around unique tracks where each turn is a new challenge. Rally cars do it on gravel back roads with four-wheel drive, Formula One has ground-bound jet fighters3 tearing through Monaco. They're less culturally freighted, so they get to have things like brake points, hairpin turns, open wheels, and (gasp!) varied terrain.
3: No, you're right, they don't have jet engines, but come on, look at those things. Carmaker Formula One divisions are basically Skunkworks.
So American Le Mans. The Le Mans 24 hour race4 is one of the great proving grounds of automotive racing. The American Series is a set of races for different classes of cars, with season winners getting to take part in the real deal race. The cars aren't restricted by what you can buy in a car dealer's showroom, spoilers are allowed, and the courses twist and turn. It's interesting racing!
4: I am rather conflating Formula One and Le Mans racing, which are different beasts. If that upsets you, I suspect you're the type of person I can distract with a link to a bitchin' picture of a Ford GT40, four-time LeMans winner and the coolest car America ever produced.

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