Racing is one of the few sports that is markedly better when there are more competitors. More cars equals more fun. The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is far more interesting and challenging with 75 cars, as opposed to, say, 50. At the NASA Championships, much of why the racing in Spec Miata is so compelling is the sheer number of cars. The same goes for any class with big fields.
That holds true, at least to a point. Even the FIA has a formula to determine the maximum number of cars allowed on track at a time. It takes into account the length and width of the track, the duration of the race and the kinds of cars competing, but figure roughly 25 cars per mile of track as a good rule of thumb.
Most stick-and-ball sports have a fixed number of players assigned a role, or a zone. Adding more players would gum up the works or create an unfair advantage. We racers seek the unfair advantage at every opportunity, but that ultimately demonstrates how racing is different from other sports.
Even in sports that don’t have major stadiums built for spectators or major network television broadcast deals, adding people can detract from the experience. If you think expansively about what a sport is, you can include things like scuba diving, skateboarding, mountain biking, hiking, or surfing. Too many participants in any of those sports in one spot can be a hindrance. If the skate park is too crowded, you might skip it that day. If the trails are overflowing with people, you might go elsewhere. You get the idea. Too many participants can lead to territorial behavior.
Surfing is particularly susceptible to territorial possessiveness. It’s not clear to me whether the term “locals only” originated in surfing, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about surfers trying to keep people away from “their” surf spot. When someone drops in on a wave, the prevailing wisdom is that it’s theirs. The rub is that no matter where you go, there are more surfers than there are waves. It’s a zero-sum game. When one person catches a wave, 10 more do not. At least that’s how it was explained to me by someone who grew up surfing, and continued well into adulthood.
Territorial attitudes can get so intense that police, lawyers and government have gotten involved. Take the “Lunada Bay Boys,” for example. They are — or were — a group of locals on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles so protective of “their” surf spot that they would throw dirt clods at people they didn’t know, run them over in the water, cut surfboard leashes, slash tires, steal items from onshore and write slurs on car windows with surf wax.
They would do well to read up on California’s Public Trust Boundary, which guarantees public access to California’s coast, but let’s not get too deep into the weeds with the law.
So we’re clear, I’m not disparaging all surfers as waterborne gang members — but if the shoe fits, break out your crayons and send me a nasty letter. I am saying that I prefer the dynamic of racing and its community, where more people enhance the event. The racing experience isn’t a zero-sum game.
Going back to my first experiences with NASA, I can remember how welcoming it felt to be there. Granted, it can be intimidating to attend your first track event and to take up racing. You wonder whether you’re qualified to be there. But over time, with more seat time, encouragement and help from people in the paddock, your NASA family, you find you’re in the right place. You’re home.
I’ve always believed that racers pay it forward because we all know how difficult the sport can be. From the expense involved to mastering driving and race craft to the mechanical gremlins that can arise, racing is a sport best approached with paddock full of the best friends you never knew you had, who understand the sport is as much yours as it is theirs.