I wonder if Art Arfons did his own laundry. I’m sure Evel Knievel didn’t. That’s what I was thinking the other night while switching the lights and darks down in my basement. I’ll go on the premise that Art didn’t either because I’d prefer to think of him head-down in a turbine engine preparing for his next assault on the land speed record. That’s far more fitting.
With the passing of both Arfons and Knievel a few years back, along with many others of significance in the car hobby recently, our living pantheon of hot rodding and racing heroes is shrinking rapidly. The saddest part of this equation is that despite several wildly popular racing series of all genres in this country, nobody appears willing to step up and fill those open spots.
Arguably, the decade that produced the largest quantity of maverick competitors, promoters, and innovators was the ’60s. Unfortunately, the era of the guy who drove a different race car in a different professional series every weekend is over. Robby Gordon is about the last dude on earth that fits the mold of the ’60s racer. Gordon’s competed at the Indy 500, he races NASCAR, he’s won the Baja 500 three times, and he’s the lead guy on a Dakar rally team. He’s also never been afraid to open his mouth and share his feelings on whatever racing topic is on the tip of his tongue—another lost art.
We live in an era where it’s big news if a couple of drivers get their well-coiffed hairdos mussed up in a shoving match. The racers of yore didn’t consider a matter closed, if they were slighted on the track, until they aired their grievances or someone was bleeding. There were heroes and villains for people to root for or against. There was never an attempt by the marketing department to create the façade that certain guys even liked each other.
Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt are still not exactly pals. All these years later, their battles, in so many different racing disciplines, still do not allow either of them to be in the same place at the same time comfortably. The best part is that’s something that both guys will admit to. Somewhere along the line we lost the fact that it’s OK to dislike the guy you’re trying to beat and it’s OK to let people know that.
WWE antics and theatrics aside, there is a true dearth of real rivalries in nearly every racing sanctioning body. Drag racing in the ’90s held the last truly great one with Al Hofmann and John Force slugging it out for nitro Funny Car supremacy. The two had respect for one another, much the same way a soldier has respect for his enemy, but like the soldiers, neither sent the other a Christmas card.
I watched virtually every broadcast minute of the 24 Hours of Le Mans a couple years ago and it was fantastic. I did so for some of the reasons mentioned above. It was packed with great rivalries that had heroes (the Corvettes) and villains (the Aston Martins), great drivers from different genres, and teams going for each other’s throats. Manufacturer battles that still have the do-or-die feel they must have had 50 years ago. National pride and bragging rights were on the line for the world to see. I’ve not been able to commit that much time to the race since then, but the rivalries remain.
Well, the starkest contrast in auto racing was exposed when on that particular year the Le Mans coverage ended and the NASCAR coverage started immediately thereafter. I went from the history and pageantry of a truly amazing event to something that had all the humanity and sincerity of an ATM machine. From the best steak you’ve ever had to a frozen plank cheeseburger.
Hot rods and racing are about passion, skill, the will to succeed, and personal achievement. Arfons, Wally Parks, Foyt, Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and the rest of their ilk recognized that and used it to their advantage. The events had meaning because the competitors gave them meaning with their performances. Whether it was Jones racing a Trans-Am Mustang like it was an Enduro car or Foyt climbing out of a bad-running car and beating it with a wrench, these men epitomized what it meant to leave it all on the track. Today’s guys complain how hot it gets inside the car during a race.
Somewhere out there, on a dirt oval, a dragstrip, a road course, or in the desert, someone’s trying to out-drive, out-think, or just flat out kick someone’s ass in motorsport competition. They are the next generation. Let’s hope for our sake there’s another immortal or two in there for us to enjoy.
Note about the Author: Brian Lohnes is an NHRA National Event Staff Announcer and co-owner of Bangshift.com.