Author's note: The 2016 racing season is finally over and the year is
winding down fast. Before we know it, Speed Weeks will be here and we'll
be racing into the Monster Energy chapter of NASCAR's history.
Now, without the roar of engines and the whine from the broadcast booth to distract, is a perfect time to reflect on the past season and on the sport we love. These few quiet minutes are a great time to go back and read or re-read the many articles posted by the different contributors on this site. Man, there is a lot of great stuff here and I encourage you to take some time and give them a look. You won't be disappointed and it will help you through these off-season winter doldrums.
As a rookie contributor, this is also my time to play catchup; to finish the stories I wished I could have posted earlier, but for various reasons they just never made it out of my head and into a format where they could be posted. Think of them as Holiday Leftovers. This is one of those leftovers. Please enjoy.
It was the last weekend in August. Our family had just celebrated my wife's birthday. It had been a big evening and now past midnight, everyone was in bed except for me and our cat. Too wound up to sleep, I turned on the TV and started surfing through the abundance of infomercials hoping to find something worthwhile. To my surprise, I surfed right into a replay of the “Careers of Veterans 200” CWTS race from Michigan.
I love the trucks and often say they are the best racing no one sees. I had missed the live broadcast and was tickled to get a chance to see the replay without first knowing the outcome.
There was lots of good, hard racing as you would expect from the CWTS drivers. It resulted in some scary moments as well as one heck of a finish (otherwise known as a typical CWTS finish). Christopher Bell spun trying to take the lead from Cole Custer and was slammed by Spencer Gallagher.
Later, Custer crashed hard into the outside wall with an impact and angle that made you hold your breath until the window net finally came down. Thank goodness for SAFER Barriers.
Brett Moffitt's last lap outside pass for his first win was a thing of beauty and a great ending to an exciting race.
But there was one moment in the race that struck me and I still don't know why. At one point the camera caught the front four racing into the third turn. They were so close, jockeying for position and in such a tight formation their precision reminded me of the Blue Angels. But the camera caught something else-each of the four had the yellow rookie stripe on their back bumpers.
Why that struck me, I don't know. It was an awesome picture seeing these young guns, seeing our sport's future together up front. Or maybe it was because I'm a rookie too and could so relate. I often feel like RFF Editor PattyKay Lilley should slap a yellow stripe on my articles just to let the readers know to watch out, give this one a wide berth cause he's a newbie. Maybe that was the reason.
[Editorial comment ☺]
With a finish like that there was no way I could go to sleep. I was so wound up from cheering William Byron on and was still shaking from his last lap save when I went back to surfing again, this time searching for something soothing and relaxing.
As luck would have it, just a few channels away I surfed into another race, seeing Scott Stoddard pass Pete Aron for the lead. Unlike the truck race, I knew how this race finished but there was no way I was going to turn this one off.
If those names don't ring a bell, these were two of the main characters from the F1 racing classic movie "Grand Prix".
Brian Bedford was the BRM driver Scott Stoddard and James Garner was the Yamura Motors driver Pete Aron and I had fortuitously surfed into the film's climactic final race - Monza. If you remember the movie I don't have to tell you how it ends. If you didn't see it I'm not going to spoil the ending; you just need to Netflix it and find out for yourself.
As I watched the final race unfold I sat back and reflected on when I first saw it. From the first day I saw the article in Popular Mechanics about how Director John Frankenheimer was using 65mm cameras strapped to everything, the drivers, the cars, a helicopter, and even a stripped down GT-40 to show racing like it had never been shown before, I had worried Dad to take me to see it. So when the day of that cinematic classic's arrival finally came, Dad had the impossible job of taking a revved up nine-year old to a nearly three-hour long indoor movie. Today, I have an excitable nine year old and there is no way I would even think to try it, but Dad, bless his heart, made it happen.
The movie followed a season and lives of four F1 drivers. Unfortunately, it wasn't all racing as there was the love interests that racing movies can't seem to live without. I missed all the hugging and kissing as I hid my eyes for those scenes, but sat on the edge of my seat for all the racing and there was plenty of that. Frankenheimer showed every bit of it like no other racing movie had been done before (or possibly since).
To get the realism, Bob Bondurant tried to teach the actors like Garner, Bedford, Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato to race, but only Garner mastered the skills. Jackie Stewart did the driving for Bedford which is why you see his signature helmet and his face covered when in the car. Other tricks were used to get Montand and Sabato's racing shots. These were mixed in with footage of the F1's best drivers, like Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert, Richie Ginther, Lorenzo Bandini and others, and added with the action filmed at actual events. Frankenheimer then wove this perfect combination of pieces into his cinematic masterpiece that would win three Academy Awards and change racing forever.
His focus on the smallest of details showed racing from angles never before imagined. Through his presentation of racing he produced an emotion so overwhelming that I still get chills every time I hear the first few notes from its distinctive theme music.
Looking back on it after all these years, those state-of-the-art, world-class race cars now seem so crude when compared to today's F1s. Their tires are so narrow and have tread so deep. There were virtually no aerodynamics. The driver was up and so exposed. It was goggles and bandannas as face shields were years away. Besides the helmet, the only other protection was a small roll bar that rarely extended above the driver's head. Having gone through F1 those years and knowing its tragic history, those beautiful machines in hindsight now resemble wheeled coffins.
The tracks, then the best in the world, were so crude; safety features were sparse… like an afterthought. Crowd control was even sparser, making for a tragic combination. It would be driver Jackie Stewart to lead a safety revolution that would eventually change that aspect of the sport but at great personal expense.
As the race winds down there was one beautiful shot of the cars racing away, down a long straightaway, heading into the woods and beyond. Trees lined either side of the track with nothing between them and the cars. When I saw this the first time, as they disappeared from sight little did I know that less than two seasons later my favorite F1 driver, the "Flying Scotsman" Jim Clark would race his car into a similar setting at Hockenheimring Germany and would not come out the other side. That day, the racing world lost one of her best drivers ever and a little boy lost another racing hero. That scene still sends a chill down my spine and causes a lump to rise in my throat.
But what has been lost over time is that the shots we now take for granted in racing today, like the crashes of Bell and Custer, and the Moffitt pass for the win, did not exist before this movie. John Frankenheimer showed the world what was possible and it would take another twenty years before television would start down the path blazed by him. And it would take another fifteen years or so before the technological advancements would bring coverage of modern racing to the level he achieved fifty years ago.
The in-car shots of the drivers and "bumper cam" shots to show the close racing, which are now so commonplace were first done here, with cameras on outriggers or high performance camera cars mixed right in the middle of the action. Remember the first time you saw a close-up sequence of Ricky Rudd's amazing tap dance on the pedals at Sonoma or Watkins Glen? That concept, that shot was pioneered here years before. We never knew how much the suspension moved or how hot the brakes got until Frankenheimer showed that these important elements could be captured to broaden the racing experience.
We also see that even though he explored nearly every angle known, he didn't see the need to bury a camera in the track and call it something cute. More importantly, he showed us that allowing a scene to speak for itself can say more and be more powerful than incessant yammering - a concept totally foreign to many of today's broadcasters.
As the closing scene began, with Garner standing at the finish line of a now empty Monza, a sadness fell over me and I'm not sure why.
Maybe it was the emotion of the final scene. To this race fan there are few places sadder than an empty race track. The vacuum created by the unnatural absence of sound, action and excitement is filled with the memories of races long past... and they can absolutely overwhelm you.
Or maybe it was the realization that this movie, which would forever change coverage of not only F1, but the entire racing world, including the then regional sport of NASCAR was going to go through 2016… would go through its fiftieth anniversary without any recognition from the racing community at all. The racing world's silence for “Grand Prix” and its impacts was as deafening as that starting line at Monza where Garner now stood.
(Authors note: Thankfully, on October 7, 2016 a celebration was finally held in Laguna Beach CA to mark Grand Prix's fiftieth anniversary.)
Or maybe it is the fact that
even though fans who never saw the movie can now go back and take it in, no
matter how hard they may try, they cannot understand or appreciate the impact
Grand Prix had on racing, because they have never experienced the
"before" to compare to today.
F1 journalist Peter Windsor described it as follows,
"Bear in mind that all we'd ever seen was 2-D,
foggy, black and white photographs of newspapers and suddenly we had 3-D
Cinerama of a lap of Spa. It was absolutely mind-blowing!"
Yes it was!
And leading man James Garner reflected,
"We got as close as you could get at that time to what racing was all about."
Yes you did!
And the man who brought it all to us, John Frankenheimer said, “When I look back, I don't know how the hell we did that film."
We don't know how you did it
either, but we're glad you did! Thank you John Frankenheimer for capturing
racing in a way that had never been done before and setting the standard race
coverage strives to achieve to this day.
And as the silence of the empty grid is broken by the ghostly roar of race engines, it reminds us that the track may now be empty and the grid may now be silent, but just ahead, just as there has been for now over fifty years, is another race, and another season.
And for that we can be thankful.
Happy 50th anniversary “Grand Prix.”