Great Rivalries: Racing's Best Rivalries

August 24, 2009
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Rivalries fuel our passion for motorsports. A race is a zero-sum proposition, after all, and for one to win, another must lose. Intellectually, we can appreciate the many skills showcased in racing - strategy, driving technique, engineering excellence, and so on. But emotionally, what energizes us most is drama, and drama demands competition, and competition is the by-product of rivalries. Rivalries between nations. Rivalries between manufacturers. Rivalries between teams. And most dramatic of all, rivalries between drivers.
There's nothing in racing more riveting than the sight of two great drivers in two equally matched cars going wheel-to-wheel without being hindered by team orders, pit blunders, or backmarkers. Think of Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward swapping the lead fifteen times during the 1960 Indianapolis 500. Or imagine the epic duel between Georges Boillot and Christian Lautenschlager in the French Grand Prix of 1914, the French patrician in the blue Peugeot battling the German mechanic in the white Mercedes, braving dust and gravel for more than seven hours for the honor of the countries that would be fighting each other in World War I less than a month later. The race ended with Boillot sobbing next to his broken Peugeot and the crowd at the finish line in Lyon greeting Lautenschlager's unexpected win with stony silence.
But great rivalries are about more than on-track competition, no matter how fierce. You also need an element of personal animosity to raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension. Richard Petty and David Pearson were the two most successful stock car racers of their era - they finished 1-2 in sixty-three Grand National and Winston Cup races - but there was little hostility between them. Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, on the other hand, still don't like each other, and twenty years have passed since their last head-to-head race. That's what you want in a rivalry - something polarizing, something that forces you to choose sides. Democrats or Republicans. Yankees or Red Sox. Less filling or great taste.
Ironically, some of the most vicious rivalries - family feuds, you might call them - grow out of a single team. Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at Ferrari in 1982 are the most notorious example of toxic teammates (see page 57). It's a miracle that Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodríguez didn't kill each other during their two years racing Gulf Porsche 917Ks. (The lasting image of their rivalry was the two of them slithering through Spa's Eau Rouge side by side in 1970, in the rain, with no more than an inch between their powder-blue prototypes.) And in 2007, there was the Fernando Alonso versus Lewis Hamilton contretemps at McLaren, which not only supplied the media with a never-ending supply of entertaining fodder but ultimately cost both of them the Formula 1 championship.
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We can all savor the spectacle of the quickest driver in the fastest car majestically disappearing from the field - Jim Clark crushing all comers at Indy in 1965 or Cale Yarborough winning by two laps at Bristol in 1973. But great drivers are defined by their rivals. Michael Schumacher is a case in point. Although he won ninety-one times in F1, often unchallenged by his competition, the races that we remember best are the ones that involved tête-à-têtes - with Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994, with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997, with Mika Häkkinen at Spa in 2000. Or what about Imola in 2005, where he spent the last part of the race desperately trying, but failing, to slip past Alonso's slower Renault? More than the championship Alonso would earn at the end of the year, this was the race that identified him as the rightful heir to Schumacher's crown.
In racing, unfortunately, rivalries tend to be relatively short-lived. Drivers move up or on. Cars and teams become uncompetitive. Technology and personnel change. But every now and then we're blessed with a rivalry so rich and well-matched that it transcends the conflict between two great drivers and speaks to a larger clash between cultures - old versus new, sport versus commerce, us versus them. In Indy cars, it was Foyt and Andretti. In Formula 1, it was Prost and Senna. And in stock cars, it was Earnhardt and Gordon. In each case, these rivalries were the visible evidence of tectonic shifts that were transforming the sport.
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A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti
The great fault line in Indy car racing opened up in the early 1960s, when mid-engine chassis based on contemporary grand prix designs rendered front-engine roadsters obsolete. Nearly a half century later, we're still feeling the effects of this revolution, which created a disconnect between the midget and sprint cars that had traditionally served as the training wheels for Indy, which led to a schedule dominated by road courses and street races, which prompted the creation of the IRL, which engendered The Split that gutted interest in open-wheel racing, which cleared the road for the ascendance of NASCAR Nation.
A. J. Foyt was the last, and arguably the greatest, of the strapping, swaggering heroes of the roadster era and a circle-track tradition dating back to Barney Oldfield barnstorming around the fairgrounds of turn-of-the-century America. Born near Houston and often wrenching on his own cars, Foyt fought his way up - sometimes literally - from the dusty minor leagues of midget and sprint cars before becoming the first four-time winner of the Indy 500. He won more Indy car races (sixty-seven) and championships (seven) than anybody in history. In 1964, the last year that roadsters were competitive, he won ten of thirteen races - run on both pavement and dirt. And yet one year later, he finished second in the title hunt to a newcomer who looked to be not only half his age but half his size.
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Mario Andretti has been such an articulate spokesman for American racing for so long that it's hard to believe he was born in Italy and didn't move to the United States until he was fifteen. Like Foyt, Andretti survived a dangerous bullring apprenticeship in modifieds and sprint cars. But unlike the hopefuls he was racing against, he'd grown up idolizing not Bill Vukovich but Alberto Ascari. When he went to Indy for the first time in 1965, it was in a mid-engine knockoff of a Brabham grand prix car, and when he won his first Indy car race, it was on a road course.
The battle lines between Foyt and Andretti formed the axis around which Indy car racing revolved. Their personalities, too, couldn't have been more dissimilar, Andretti sunny and quotable, Foyt profane and forbidding. Who was better? Well, Andretti didn't win quite as many races or championships, but he led more laps and earned more poles. He won his second consecutive USAC title in 1966, when Foyt went winless for the first time since 1959. But 1967 was a dogfight. Between them, they won eleven of the last twelve races on the schedule before the season-ender at Riverside, where Foyt had nearly been killed in a stock car two years before. Andretti ran out of fuel while leading. Foyt scraped by to win the championship by arranging to jump in Roger McCluskey's car after Foyt crashed his own earlier in the race.
During the '70s, Andretti concentrated his attention on Europe, winning the Formula 1 world championship in 1978 while Foyt claimed two more USAC titles and his fourth Indy. But both of them continued to race against each other at the Speedway into the '90s, and their impact on the sport would be felt even after they retired from the cockpit. Foyt, by then a team owner, was the biggest name to throw his support behind Tony George when the IRL split from CART in 1996, and Andretti, as an éminence grise, was the behind-the-scenes broker who got the warring factions together to reunify open-wheel racing in 2008. So now Andretti and Foyt are together again - but still on opposite ends of the compound.
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Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
Foyt and Andretti were never friends, but neither were they enemies. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, by way of contrast, were oil and water. Or maybe gunpowder and a match is a more apt characterization. Their relationship was contentious enough while they were on separate teams, but paired together at the height of McLaren's F1 supremacy, they formed the ugliest - and most perversely compelling - rivalry in motorsports history.
They came from very different places, Prost raised in modest circumstances in France and Senna born to privilege in Brazil. Senna embodied the Latin temperament, passionate and introspective, prone to outlandish outbursts and contemplative soliloquies. The oh-so-Gallic Prost, nicknamed "The Professor," was stone-faced and phlegmatic. Yet it was their similarities that were the primary source of the friction between them: They were ruthless in their determination to win. (Both of them broke contracts to move to better teams, and both were accused of playing politics to marginalize their teammates.) And they were the most talented drivers of their generation.
Prost was a throwback. He was a master of racecraft, he knew how to preserve machinery and save fuel, and he was faster in races than in qualifying. (Both he and Senna averaged one win for every four races, but Prost earned half as many poles while posting twice as many fastest laps.) Prost already had two titles to his credit when Senna joined him at McLaren in 1988. This was the year of Gordon Murray's MP4/4, the most dominant car in grand prix history, and McLaren won fifteen of sixteen races. Prost scored more points, but thanks to an anomaly in the scoring system, Senna won the championship. The next season, relations between the two drivers were poisonous. Earlier, acrimonious words had passed between them when Senna nearly ran Prost into the pit wall at Estoril, but they stopped speaking to each other altogether after Senna reneged on a prerace agreement and won at Imola.
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At Suzuka, Prost secured his championship by running into Senna as the Brazilian tried to pass him near the end of the race. Did Prost turn in too early to prevent Senna from passing? Did Senna make an overly ambitious maneuver that was bound to end in tears? Even now, the jury is still out. The next year, the championship was again decided at Suzuka. Again, Prost was leading, now racing for Ferrari, but this time Senna secured his championship by purposely spearing Prost and then admitting it, matter-of-factly, after the race.
Senna's death at Imola in 1994 cast him as a saintlike figure, martyred by the lax safety regulations of the day. But his most lasting legacy is his win-at-all-costs attitude. It was no coincidence, surely, that Schumacher crashed into his championship rivals, seemingly on purpose, in the final races of the 1994 and 1997 seasons. And today, the tactics that Senna practiced - the starting-line chop, the lunging pass, the psychological warfare - have percolated all the way down to go-karting.
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Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt
Just about the only place where these cutthroat techniques aren't standard operating procedure is stock car racing, which had been, until relatively recently, a parochial backwater. Which is why Jeff Gordon's arrival in the early '90s caused so much controversy and soul-searching about the fundamental nature of the sport.
At the time, Dale Earnhardt was not only the top dog in Winston Cup, he was also the exemplar of the predominantly blue-collar phenomenon that had flourished almost exclusively in the South after Bill France founded NASCAR in 1948. Born in a small town in the North Carolina Piedmont and the son of a legendary short-track racer, Earnhardt dropped out of high school to focus on racing but worked in the local mill and scuffled for more than a decade before reaching the big time. And even after winning his first championship in 1980, he was regarded for several years as a loose cannon. Later in life, the media dubbed him "The Intimidator," but in the Cup garage, he was more commonly known by a less flattering sobriquet: "Ironhead."
Gordon, meanwhile, was unlike anything NASCAR had seen before. He was born in California, won his first race at age five, and moved to Indiana when he was fourteen to run hairy-chested midget and sprint cars. From the start, he was a prodigy, and if he'd grown up a generation earlier, he would have been groomed for Indy. But there were no opportunities in CART for a tyro like Gordon. So at the age of nineteen, he turned his attention to stock cars.
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Gordon arrived in NASCAR at a propitious moment. The sport was expanding beyond its Southern roots, and mainstream advertisers were capitalizing on its growth. Gordon was young, handsome, clean-cut, polite, personable, and above all else, the antithesis of the good ol' boy - the anti-Dale, if you will. Predictably, the hype surrounding Gordon offended NASCAR diehards. Earnhardt ran the new kid hard both on and off the track, publicly questioning his manhood, mocking him when he cried after his first win, and derisively nicknaming him "Wonder Boy." But Gordon wasn't intimidated. Earnhardt claimed the last of his seven championships during Gordon's first two years in Cup before Gordon turned the tables in 1995, winning the first of his four titles. At the year-end banquet, baby-faced Gordon playfully saluted Earnhardt with a champagne flute - filled with milk.
Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001 confirmed his folk-hero status. But from our vantage point in 2009, it's clear that he was the last of the breed. Today, top stock car racers come from Australia and Colombia, F1 and Indy cars, and increasingly, they're spit out of the Jeff Gordon mold. Gordon protégé Jimmie Johnson, the reigning (and three-time) Sprint Cup champ, cut his teeth off-road racing and worked as a TV race reporter before landing a ride in NASCAR. Like Gordon, he's handsome, articulate, and aggressively inoffensive. Sponsors love him. Fans? Not so much. And it's impossible to envision him embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out feud that causes the hair to stand up on the back of your head every time he comes within crashing distance of his adversary. That's a shame.
Sparks are bound to fly in racing. But these days, sanctioning bodies do their best to extinguish fires before they start. The thinking seems to be that fighting and other displays of undue emotion are unseemly reminders of the sideshow status motorsports were accorded before television and big-bucks sponsors arrived to raise its demographic profile. What the powers that be are forgetting is that rivalries aren't relics of the bad old days; they're the essence of racing. And eradicating them is one surefire way of killing the sport in the name of lifting it to the next level. Because in racing, a little bad blood is just what the doctor ordered.


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