Can We Really Call Motorsport a Sport?

After watching the Rolex 24, um, race at Daytona International Speedway, it’s hard not to think that motorsport is less about racing and more about big egos, vanity, and loud, loud marketing.

The pits stink of gasoline, burnt rubber, and anxiety. Racing men—that is to say dangerous speed-addicted men—stand in tight huddles in brightly colored, logo-laden driving onesies. Some stare at banks of computer screens, headsets on. Others sit exhausted in folding chairs or on top of crates, eating Doritos and drinking Gatorade from paper cups. Every few seconds, the air screams as a peloton of cars blurs past. To those whose ears are attuned to the song of the track, each roar is unique. The DPi-V.R, a prototype from Cadillac, for instance, lets out a furious high-pitched Doppler mewl. The Lamborghini Huracán GT3, of which there are eight competing, has a more hacking baritone thunder.

As night falls in late January, it is cold and dark in Daytona. Raindrops pass through the klieg lights to fall onto the track and the empty stands. At first glance, the brightly colored seats set in random order in the grandstands of the Daytona International Speedway appear full. But we are deep into the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a 24-hour endurance race, and the crowd that was sparse to start with has all but disappeared.

I am here with a cohort of automotive journalists, many of whom enjoy a nomadic existence by stringing together press junkets in exotic locales. They live from their carry-ons and love carrying on about press trips gone sideways. The steaks are always too thin. The villas are a bit stuffy. OMG, the first-class flight from Valencia was delayed. There are some good ones, of course, but when you see the world through the windshield of a luxury car, you become terrible. Ferried from our hotel in Daytona Beach, I listened with disgust as one woman mocked the check cashing services and cheap Chinese food restaurants that lined the road in a faux-redneck caricature. “Just look at this place,” she said. Meanwhile, our PR minder forced a smile and the bad behavior continued unchecked.

Perhaps my opinions would change. A lot can happen in 24 hours. But, by the law of entropy, mostly things just break down. As the 64 cars tear around the speedway’s notoriously steep banks and navigate the infield curves, which pit the ambition for speed against the caution of tricky chicanes, the anxious teams monitor their vehicles for signs of failure. Unlike shorter NASCAR races, an endurance race pushes not just the driver but the car to its limit: Over the course of a full grueling day, engines fail, electronics malfunction, transmissions cannot hold.

As in many GT motorsports races, the teams are some combination of professionals and wealthy customers called “gentleman racers” and their hired help. Some companies staff their racing team with professionals, counting on laurels to generate a halo effect among consumers. In this case, the company itself assumes the cost—anywhere from $2-10 million per team. Most of the teams, though, are sponsored by wealthy owners, not the car makers themselves. This is called “customer racing,” and it shifts events like these into the domain of marketing.

Lamborghini, for instance, has sold over 200 racing cars at about $427,328 per car in the past 24 months alone. And with each purchase, the owner both gets to indulge in his fantasy (except for a lady from Dallas, it is always a he) of being the next Senna. He also gains access to the upper echelon management, the heads of R&D, the guy who runs the racing team, and the COO. Meanwhile, the company offers things like hospitality suites with lobster mac ‘n’ cheese and sauvignon blanc to the owners, one-on-one coaching at their various driving schools, and sometimes even engineers to help during the race.

In this race, there are four drivers per team, each of a varied level of experience. It is easy to tell who’s who in the pit. The drivers are usually the skinniest, youngest, and most handsome. Many race car drivers are the children of oligarchs, modern-day Veruca Salts who grew up in towns like Coral Gables, Florida, and preferred going karting to reading Kafka as lads. Some are nice; others aren’t. The drivers who swagger like silverbacks and struggle to fit into the cockpit are often the owners themselves.

As for the professionals, many are what are called factory drivers, who are attached to the manufacturer of the car. Lamborghini, for instance, furnishes its teams with drivers from its Squadra Corse Juniors squad. Among the other teams are professional drivers as well—some, like Filipe Albuquerque, are veteran endurance racers; others, like Jeff Gordon, are borrowed from NASCAR.

In the pits, which are not pits at all but tents, the most important figure besides the crew chief is often the engineer, usually a scrawny guy examining the telemetry with professional dispassion. Also important are the brutes who flip heavy tires like flapjacks but who in the frenzied seconds of a pit stop suddenly become as graceful as danseurs. Other ancillary helpers who attach themselves to the teams provide sundry minor but necessary tasks like rolling used tires out of the tent and drying the drivers’ helmets. There are many mustaches.

There is something disquieting and malevolent about the ceaseless speed and rhythmic deafening noise. For even though these men are makers of the machines, these machines would seem to be the masters of the men. If this is a sport, who are the athletes? Is it those dancing bears, bearers of tires? Is it the drivers, with their helmets, neck braces, sense of derring do, and assumptions of bodily risk? Is the lollypop man, whose task it is to flag the cars into the pit with what looks like an oversized lolly?

Perhaps the real athletic feat isn’t at the race track at all but is, rather, in the sterile and analytic engineering laboratories in Bologna, Modena, Stuttgart, and Detroit? Instead of bodies breathing, motorsports are about engines aspirating. Muscles are carefully angled cylinders and fuel comes in gallons not carbohydrates.

What, one wonders, separates impressive acts of engineering from impressive feats of the human body? Perhaps the sport isn’t on the track or in the laboratory at all. Maybe this is all for show and the real battle is waged in boardrooms where lap times translate into P&L and the finish line is replaced by the bottom line.

As the sun rises in Daytona, many of the tents are empty. More than a dozen of the teams retired early. Many have already packed up their computers and craft services tables and compressed gas tanks and headed to wherever race car drivers go when they’ve lost. (Central Florida is the land of the titty bar.) The rest follow the perambulations with ever more bloodshot eyes and—except for the few leaders—increasingly wilted spirits. What could be a better echo of the human condition than watching a car without a chance of winning complete endless laps?

Round and round the cars go, tempting death for a taste of glory and a Rolex watch. In the final minutes, two Cadillacs touch, sending one of them in a smoky circle. Though it isn’t a sport, sportsmanship does exist and dictates that when there is a collision like this, the hitter waits while the hittee rights himself before speeding away. But with so much on the line, after the collision, Rick Taylor, of the Wayne Taylor Racing team, speeds off to victory as the number two car, from Action Express Mustang Sampling, loses precious seconds.

When at last the 24 hours lapse and the winner is announced, everyone except the four drivers, their pit, and the assembled pooh-bahs at Cadillac seem too tired to celebrate much. Filipe Albuquerque of Action Express, when pointedly asked why he lost by the somewhat abrasive English announcer, was rather sore at the whole thing and inched toward not conceding defeat at all. The rest of us hop into our modest sedans and drive home, past strip malls and Krispy Kremes, smelling of gas and speeding toward sleep.