Thursday, November 13, 2014

Auto Racing and DE Shaving Obsessions -- A Guy Thing?

Jim Clark in 1962, one year before his first
world championship in 1963.
I must admit that I'm a fan of the late Jim Clark, the nearly-legendary Formula One racing champion of the 1960s. I lived in Indianapolis in the mid 60s and was at the track when Clark's car broke while leading the race in 1964 and when he won his Indy 500 in 1965. He also reached full stride in his European campaigns winning the F1 championship in 1963 and 1965, nearly missing in 1962, and being a main threat for the title in 1964 and 1967 -- only being undone by the lack of reliability of his cars in those years. He was killed in a racing accident in the spring of 1968 -- all the more tragic because it was a relatively unimportant formula-two event, and the accident was attributed to mechanical failure, which he was obviously unable to counteract even with his prodigious driving talent.

I have recently been watching and re watching the few video clips and short documentaries on him and his racing career. Part of the appeal of those videos is that, in my opinion, those 1960s Formula One race cars were some of the most beautiful and elegant ever designed. This was the era just before they began adding wings to the cars for more aerodynamic down force. Racing then was also much more dangerous than it is today -- and it's still very risky. The cars were like rolling, fragile gas tanks. Worse, for the entire length of Clark's F1 career, drivers used no kind of seat belt; they were more afraid of being trapped in the car during a fire than taking their chances careening around unbuckled either inside the car or after being thrown out.
Clark at the wheel of the elegant and innovative Lotus 49 at
Brands Hatch in 1967, less than a year before his death. In that car,
he would have again been the main threat for the championship
in 1968, which was instead won by Graham Hill in the Lotus 49.

Many thought European road racing would be banned after Clark's death because if Clark, perhaps the greatest driver ever, could be killed, then the activity clearly was not safe. I was almost 14 years of age when Clark died, but it hit me hard nonetheless. These days, as I said earlier, with the magic of the Internet and YouTube, I have been indulging in reminiscences of those years -- the beauty and graceful lines of the cars, the skill of the drivers, and their insouciance to the terrible risks.

I'm a little obsessed, I think. But it's difficult to put my finger on why that generation of drivers and Clark in particular continues to have a grip on me at such a basic emotional level.

I was mulling over my Jim-Clark-era racing obsession and I started comparing it to my shaving obsession. I started wondering about why many guys are obsessed with racing and with shaving as well. And, actually, I don't think it's as simple as being just a guy thing -- or all guys would be both obsessed with old-time racing as well as their daily shaves, which they're clearly not.

From a certain perspective, both are silly obsessions. One is merely a quotidian personal-grooming chore taken to an extreme of seeking the ideal, and the other was a dangerous (some might say, crazy) game where one competitor tries to out duel the others and avoid serious bodily injury (or worse) at the same time -- like playing a game of chicken with one's self. The drivers had their adrenalin addiction; the spectators, the aficionados like me have our vicarious appreciation of the calm excellence of the drivers constantly, madly seeking to maintain their speed at the limits of control. I think it's the unceasing quest for the perfection of every drive, that push to the limit in the face of the grave potential danger of that era that we understand and appreciate from afar. Racing is still pretty dangerous, but not like those days; and the strange romance of that era's danger in racing has its grip on me even still.

Yet some did survive. John Surtees, Dan Gurney, Jackie Stewart are three names among many that did not die in their race car. Even Graham Hill survived his racing career, but was killed in a crash of his private airplane. A.J. Foyt was one of the best American drivers in those days as was Mario Andretti, who was also Formula One Champion one year -- about ten years after Clark's end -- and both of these champions are still with us too.

Yet there are similarities between appreciating the racing game and shaving -- modest though the similarities are -- but perhaps enough to begin to explain the addictions. The drivers needed to go fast enough to beat their competition, but not so fast as to exceed the vehicle's limit and crash; it was a balancing act of sorts, with life and limb on the line. Shaving, though not life threatening (I hope! -- at least not so far!) is also a balancing act for me, pitting the closest possible shave without undue abuse of one's skin.

Also similar is that there are no guarantees. The perfect race on one day never guaranteed success -- even survival -- on the next outing. The perfect shave on a give day also carries no assurances that the next will be close and comfortable. Every day you take your best equipment and your skill and once more try for perfection.

I think the unending uncertainty of attaining perfection combined with the potential of excellence every time contributes significantly to the obsessive compulsion. Yes, that's it: it's a perfection thing. It's the appreciation of the quest for perfection. It's why I get nostalgic about Clark and his greatness lost. It's why I am addicted to the game of tennis, in which there is always the next point, the next game, the next match.

And there's shaving, where there's always the allure of making the best shave soap, having the perfect shave, and even when I get it nearly perfect, there's always the fresh challenge of tomorrow -- like life in general.

Happy shaving!

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