O Opinions & Commentary

Icons – Race fans’ enthusiasm is based on key experiences


The difference between a true race fan and a person who takes a casual interest in following the racing news and attending a few races now and then is the racing fan’s set of racing icons. Early on in our experiences as race fans we latch onto certain important events, race circuits, and/or drivers and for the rest of our racing days, we respond to each new racing experience in the context of those icons.

For many people the Indy 500 is such an icon. In the old days the Indy 500 publicists were masters of making every news medium across North America buy into the mythology of the paramount importance of this race – important even among other sporting events. It was hard not to get caught up in this enthusiasm for the classic race and to end up accepting it as the icon against which one compared all other race events. All you need to look at are the number of attempts to share the glory. The Toronto race has always been called the “Indy” even when it was part of the breakaway CART series – and there are many other references to “Indy” races far beyond the Hoosier state – all seeking the reflected glory of the supreme iconic “500”. Even the number 500 itself has become iconic. Look at the number of races that share the race distance and the name such as the relative newcomers the Southern 500 and the Daytona 500.  Even the “400” and “300”, etc. race name references are an attempt to share the glow of the iconic Indy 500.

How does this work? If we have a racing icon we think about everything else in this context. The more another experience resembles the icon, the more we appreciate it and vice versa. During the time of the IRL/CART split, the most ardent supporters of the IRL were those for whom the Indy 500 was their strongest racing icon.

Of course, this adoption of icons does not apply just to an event like the Indy 500, it can also be a venue like Mosport or a make of race car like Ferrari or a driver like Dale Earnhardt. Don’t you think that much of the adulation of Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes from fans for whom Dale Senior is their ultimate racing icon?

lat kinrade earnhardt tri00050

I believe that one’s attachment to a racing icon is stronger if it comes from first-hand experience – attendance at races. However, for many/most of us there are practical considerations that limit our ability to attend many races in person – so we get the bulk of our experience by way of magazines, television and the internet – and hence many of our icons come from these second-hand experiences.

I was a car guy before I attended my first car race and I had an icon – Tom McCahill who wrote for the magazine Mechanix Illustrated. I saw my first race at the age of 15 and my car world changed. “Sports car racing” became my new icon and the American car-based allegiance of McCahill was cast aside. And I had a new racing car icon – the sleek Ferrari Mondial that easily outran everything else on the Edenvale track that day.

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Next week, I’m going to be at the RM Auction in Monterey where a sister car to that Ferrari Mondial will be the featured item in their sale. It’s still an icon for me and I’ll be watching it cross the  block.

55 DutchGP Fangio Moss

Over the years I’ve had a number of driver icons staring with Fangio and Moss, the Mercedes duo in 1955. For me, no one can ever compare to those two but I have had more icons as the years have gone on – such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Gilles Villeneuve, Jeff Gordon. I wonder how many of Jacques’ Villeneuve’s fans were really fans in the context of their real icon, Gilles?


I know that the Indy 500 was far from being an icon for me until Jim Clark went there to challenge the home town crowd – and it was my allegiance to Clark, Lotus and Formula One that carried me over to an interest in the Indy race. I think that even today, I still see the Indy 500 in that context, a race that was largely taken over by the road-racing contingent, leaving the old sprint-car dirt-track guys scrambling to adapt and keep up to the sports car crowd.

Who or what are your icons? Do you agree that these icons form a context within which you cheer or boo your racing experiences today?

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