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The Big “What If” Question

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  • The Big “What If” Question

    Apologies if this has been discussed before. I’m on my phone while on vacation in Vermont, and the already weak search on this site is downright useless on mobile.

    Where would open-wheel be today if the tragic events of late spring 1955 (Vukovich’s death at Indy, Ascari’s death at Monza, the Le Mans disaster, and I think one or two other incidents I can’t recall off the top of my head) didn’t happen, and the American Automobile Association hadn’t gotten out of the racing business? What would the last 65 or so years have looked like?
    “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

  • #2
    Not much different. You see, USAC was basically the Contest Board of the AAA under a different name - mostly the same persons, with mostly the same policies. There had always been conflict between the Contest Board and the mother organisation, so that's the only thing in question, with the AAA regarding its motorsport involvement more of a liability than an asset. It would have happened anyway, if not in 1955 then maybe a year or a decade later.

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    • #3
      Thank you for the info. Do you think the AAA would have better with the commercial side as that became a bigger part of the sport?
      “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

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      • #4
        About the same. Why focus on 1955 when there were deaths for decades, before and after?
        “Church supper with grandma and granddad, lets go out and have ourselves the best time we ever had" - John Mellencamp

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Oddy View Post
          About the same. Why focus on 1955 when there were deaths for decades, before and after?
          Because some of the deaths, in fact the majority of them, were spectators. (Le Mans)
          Drivers to be killed while doing something they knew it could happen to them was something else than a massacre among the public that had dnone nothing else but attending an event and enjoy themselves. Attdnding a race is dangerous but never ever should be that dangerous to have such an outcome.
          Spectators being killed wasn't that new, examples enough, even in the USA. The early Vandebilt Cup events were famous for the total lack of discipline by the public with the unavoidable results. Including leaving Long Island for racing at other venues instead.

          But over 80 people killed within a few seconds, that was something else. A number of countries reacted as a result of that.
          One still lasting effect? There is still no track racing allowed in Switzerland since June 1955.

          Indy has escaped a few occasions of being the event that could have caused a similar change of hearts and a number of draconian remedies because of many injuries and/or fatalities among the public. More serious than what happened after the 1973 disaster.
          Remain thankful that a carbon copy crash of Tony Renna's fateful crash never happened on Race day. You would not have had the Race Day we had this year had that happened.
          Or that the stories about Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald crashing with 90+ gallons of gasoline are simply not true and that only a thord of that volume of gasoline went ablaze. Hat it indeed been a up to 180 gallon gasoline fire, who knows how much bigger the sea of fire had become then and perhaps even got into the crowd.
          Had such happened, I wonder how Tony Hulman would have acted in the aftermath of such a disaster.....

          At least within Europe, few if any years in motor racing history cause so many shock waves and concern among people and resulting into some major changes within racing. 1955 was a watershed year.. The only years that comes close to that were 1982 and 1994 when massive rule changes for the F1 cars were introduced for the next season after some dramatic events during those seasons..

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Oddy View Post
            About the same. Why focus on 1955 when there were deaths for decades, before and after?
            Because 1955 was when the the AAA pulled the plug on the Competition Board, which led to the formation of USAC. The events I listed - and particularly Le Mans - was the straw that broke the camel's back.
            “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Sweaty Teddy View Post

              Because 1955 was when the the AAA pulled the plug on the Competition Board, which led to the formation of USAC. The events I listed - and particularly Le Mans - was the straw that broke the camel's back.

              I expect this is really about Le Mans then. As I said, driver deaths were commonplace a very long time. I still don't think a lot would change here in the states, where it seems you are focusing on. That's just my opinion. Do you think auto racing could have been as big as MLB or the NFL?
              “Church supper with grandma and granddad, lets go out and have ourselves the best time we ever had" - John Mellencamp

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              • #8
                IF is the middle word in Life.
                "Far better it is to dare mighty things, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat" -Teddy Roosevelt

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Michael Ferner View Post
                  Not much different. You see, USAC was basically the Contest Board of the AAA under a different name - mostly the same persons, with mostly the same policies. There had always been conflict between the Contest Board and the mother organisation, so that's the only thing in question, with the AAA regarding its motorsport involvement more of a liability than an asset. It would have happened anyway, if not in 1955 then maybe a year or a decade later.
                  The AAA was an organization that made its money from travel services and related items, especially insurance. By the 1930s, the AAA and its Contest Board were already something of an odd couple. Even before the Contest Board was established in 1909 as part of an agreement with the Manufacturers' Contest Association (MCA), there was friction between those wanting to retain the Racing Board and those against the AAA supporting racing. The slate of AAA officers elected for 1906 were generally lukewarm at best to being openly hostile to racing on the other end of the spectrum. Keep in mind that there was not a Vanderbilt Cup in 1907 and there were reasons for that.

                  Part of the issue between the AAA itself and its Contest Board was, of course, money. The Contest Board -- and its predecessor the Racing Board -- was meant self-sufficient when it came to funding itself. This did not always happen, although it did most of the time, it seems. That the Contest Board even existed was due to the MCA essentially contracting the AAA to be the sanctioning body. Of course, there is the whole drama of 1908 with the Racing Board and the Automobile Club of America (ACA) being part of the collateral damage thanks to a dispute that began over membership fees and nothing to do with racing at all. However, that opened the door for other issues and what eventually ended up with the ACA being the US representative to the AIACR until the latter part of the 1920s.

                  The rise of IMCA and other racing organizations during the period from 1915 to the beginning of WW2 and then even more after the war, did have an impact upon the Contest Board. Even without the death of Vukovich and the disaster at Le Mans, one senses that something such as the ACCUS would have finally emerged. When, however, is simply guesswork. As mentioned, the differences between the AAA Contest Board and the USAC were relatively minor, at best. New Boss, Same As the Old Boss, basically.

                  The reappearance of the IMS after the war rather the site being used as a housing tract, of course, pays a role in all this. I suspect that the Rickenbacker decision to sell the speedway site for residential use would also have greatly affected the Contest Board since the annual International Sweepstakes event was really about all the Contest Board really and truly tended to care about since somewhere around the mid/late-1920s. There was the Speedway and there was the Contest Board, both under Eddie Rickenbacker. No annual 500 mile race at the Speedway, why would the AAA care to be involved with racing?

                  For what it might be worth, counterfactual history can be a very useful exercise, allowing the examination of the concepts of contingency and agency, developing a healthy skepticism of the usual determinist approaches to the past, not to mention underscoring the importance of context when pondering the past. Naturally, there are real limits to this sort of analysis, but it can be another useful tool in the bag for examining the past.

                  In this case, think of the agency of people such as Shaw and Hulman, as well as the often overlooked political aspects of motor sport, the 1955 season in Europe presenting a nice case study for that. Once you start moving the pieces around, patterns begin to emerge and the rationale for decisions begin to present themselves, often in a different light than the previous ones.
                  And so we beat on, boats against the current, drawn back ceaselessly into the past ... F. Scott Fitzgerald
                  Ever have the feeling that the rest of the world is a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes? ... George Gobel

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Sweaty Teddy View Post

                    Because 1955 was when the the AAA pulled the plug on the Competition Board, which led to the formation of USAC. The events I listed - and particularly Le Mans - was the straw that broke the camel's back.
                    I think you're overlooking Michael's larger point, something Don also touched upon. Many believe the AAA was looking to exit motorsports involvement and simply used the timing of LeMans as a convenient excuse. The bigger "what if" might have been how much longer would the AAA have sanctioned motorsports without the 1955 LeMans disaster. One year? Two? Perhaps they would have ceased sanctioning at the end of 1955 regardless.
                    "Versions of a story that are more tidy, compact, and camera-ready should generally be viewed as historically suspect." - Jackson Landers

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Oddy View Post


                      I expect this is really about Le Mans then. As I said, driver deaths were commonplace a very long time. I still don't think a lot would change here in the states, where it seems you are focusing on. That's just my opinion. Do you think auto racing could have been as big as MLB or the NFL?
                      I'm not sure I understand what your confusion is. The 1955 Le Mans disaster - and the deaths of scores of spectators - is known to have been a contributing factor in the AAA's decision to dissolve the Contest Board at the end of that year.
                      “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by JThur1 View Post
                        I think you're overlooking Michael's larger point, something Don also touched upon. Many believe the AAA was looking to exit motorsports involvement and simply used the timing of LeMans as a convenient excuse. The bigger "what if" might have been how much longer would the AAA have sanctioned motorsports without the 1955 LeMans disaster. One year? Two? Perhaps they would have ceased sanctioning at the end of 1955 regardless.
                        You're asking the same question I did, just worded differently. The comment you quoted here was a response to Oddy, who asked why I selected 1955, seemingly arbitrarily.
                        “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Sweaty Teddy View Post

                          You're asking the same question I did, just worded differently. The comment you quoted here was a response to Oddy, who asked why I selected 1955, seemingly arbitrarily.
                          Take it easy, I'm not criticizing anything you posted. After I questioned "why 1955" you focused more on the Le Mans tragedy and I accepted that. If it effected AAA sanctioning I'll accept that too, I know little of racing politics at that time, I'm not old enough (which I don't get to say much anymore). It's only my opinion that open wheel racing would not look significantly different regardless.
                          “Church supper with grandma and granddad, lets go out and have ourselves the best time we ever had" - John Mellencamp

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Oddy View Post

                            Take it easy, I'm not criticizing anything you posted. After I questioned "why 1955" you focused more on the Le Mans tragedy and I accepted that. If it effected AAA sanctioning I'll accept that too, I know little of racing politics at that time, I'm not old enough (which I don't get to say much anymore). It's only my opinion that open wheel racing would not look significantly different regardless.
                            I'm always taking it easy. It seems like everybody is quoting different comments than they're replying to.

                            The 1955 Le Mans tragedy was such a watershed moment that it changed international motorsports well beyond Le Mans, the AAA disbanding the Contest Board being but one example. I asked the original question because at the halfway point reading Indy Split, one of my takeaways is that there was an incredible conflict of interest between IMS and USAC, ultimately two Hulman-funded entities.
                            “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

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                            • #15
                              Keep in mind that the Contest Board was a member of the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) and that group definitely felt the pressure after June 1955 and Le Mans regarding the problem of motor sport safety. It was anything but an arbitrary decision on the part of the AAA.

                              As for an excuse to finally exit being the US motor sport sanctioning body, the leadership of the AAA were apparently very happy to have finally the perfect justification to part ways with that role; however, as one can imagine, those involved with the Contest Board were not so enthralled with that decision.
                              And so we beat on, boats against the current, drawn back ceaselessly into the past ... F. Scott Fitzgerald
                              Ever have the feeling that the rest of the world is a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes? ... George Gobel

                              Comment

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