Thursday, October 3, 2013

Early Motorsports in America: Interpretive Approaches

Hi folks -- a presentation proposal just sent in for the Society of Automotive Historians Tenth Biennial Conference, to be held at Stanford University, April 10-12, 2014.

Title: Early Motorsports in America: Interpretive Approaches
This proposed presentation marks my initial foray into an area where the number of studies done by academic historians and scholars can be counted on a two hands. In contrast, popular histories of early automobile racing proliferate, some researched and written with great acuity, others less so. To my knowledge, there exists not one academic study of monograph length on early automobile racing.  Some might argue that perhaps that void is good thing, given the turgid work that academics can produce! Seriously, however, a careful examination of this seminal era offers endless possibilities to see a bigger picture, and to offer new interpretations critical to our understanding of the place of the automobile in American life.
Undoubtedly, the prevailing theme in the literature on early auto racing  -- no matter whether written by academic or "buff" historians -- centers on the symbiotic relationship between pioneering racing and the emergence of automobile production and use. Since the first decade of the 20th century, authors have explored how racing technologically influenced the manufacture of the first generation of motor cars and vice-versa. This is a question of primary importance, and reflected in the previously written surveys by John Rae, James Flink, and others, who traced connections in terms of demonstrator technologies, significant advertising strategies, utility and practicality, and the necessity for better roads.  An interpretive argument of enormous import at the time, it best justified the human carnage that took place on road and track.  This rationale, then, provides one significant wing for the story of "Glory Road," where nationalism, innovation, heroism, and blood sacrifice come together for progress and the common good.
However, recent historiography has shifted away from this traditional view, and has focused on the significance of speed as being the transformative signifier associated with early auto racing. Pointing to an interpretation first articulated in Wolfgang Sachs For Love of the Automobile (1984), Tom McCarthy asserted in 2007 that "as the first cars whizzed down city streets, they drew crowds of curious and the enthralled, and early auto races demonstrated the thrilling possibilities of road travel at breathtaking speeds."  In 2012 David Lucsko followed McCarthy up by concluding that "racing did not simply get the word out. It was the word. Outright speed remained important to the dreams of a nation now on wheels." The American adoption of the automobile, then, can fundamentally be seen as a revolution in ways of perceiving and conceptualizing time and space. Speed then entranced a public eager to adopt a democratic technology that leveled space and time, and consequently society.
One final interpretation to address -- among several that I have not mentioned -- is that of class and gender.  The era of early auto racing racing -- ending for my purposes in 1921 with Jimmy Murphy's victory at Lemans -- was one that witnessed the transition from wealthy elites as drivers to the professionals, a transition well worth further study. And as Ian Boutle concluded in 2012 in the context of British racing at Brooklands, these two decades can be described in ways going beyond portraying racing as a technological spectacle. Indeed, Boutle asserts that the complexity of how motorsport defined car culture can be seen in terms of manly strength, gentlemanly virtue, and mental supremacy. Whether Boutle's analysis can be extended to the American scene awaits further study, however. 

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