Who really is the best racer in the world?

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Sep 6, 2021 | Column, olympics | Posted in Columns | From the Oct. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

It’s Olympics time again. In fact, I’ve got NBC’s live feed from the fencing venue on my other screen while I’m writing this column. 

By the time you read this, the best athletes on the planet in a number of disciplines will have emerged from their elite fields of competition to prove themselves the world’s best fencers, swimmers, runners, throwers, flippers, shooters, skaters, etc.

But we still won’t really know who the best racer is.

For the most part, “traditional” sports have established feeder systems into higher levels of competition. Yes, I know that even in traditional stick-and-ball sports, competitors with resources have the advantage in developing and displaying their skills, but there are still plenty of young folks being drafted into the ranks of Major League Baseball each year who didn’t have the money for an aggressive Travel-Ball or showcase tournament schedule. So, I get it. The rich kids will still have an advantage, but there are college and pro scouts at high-profile high school baseball, football and basketball games just the same.

There are zero pro racing scouts anywhere looking for anyone.More than that, “pro” racing may not even have the market cornered on racing talent.

Yes, the talent level in high-profile professional racing like F1, NASCAR, IMSA, IndyCar and WEC’s premier divisions is stratospheric. But each of those exceptional athletes competing in those cars represents someone with not only the talent to be there, but the resources to display that talent. And, if we’re being entirely honest, the resources are far more important than the talent for most of the journey of a “professional” race car driver.

So the real truth is we may never know who the most talented driver in the world is. We know who some of the “best” are, at any given moment, in various disciplines. But the most talented racer in the world may be a 16-year-old girl running a local autocross series in her dad’s uncompetitive D Street Prepared car on old tires in central Utah. Or a 60-year-old rallycross driver in Finland who has been building his own cars out of scrap metal since the ’70s. Or some insane Jamaican cat who’s never run anywhere but Dover Raceway in a clapped-out Suzuki Swift but has otherworldly car control skills. The thing is, unless any of those folks win the Powerball, we may never know.

A great basketball player? Yeah, they’ll get found. I don’t care whether they’re playing in the most rural, no-internet-having high school in the middle of a swamp: If some 6-foot-7 kid starts putting up numbers, scouts will come a-sniffing.

I guess I really can’t be sad about this. On one hand, it’s a bit frustrating that a sport that aspires to objective mechanical precision has many barriers to entry at its highest levels so as to possibly limit the most important part of that equation–the driver–from ever being found. But it also creates some interesting situations.

Like, I’m never going to play in the NFL. Not even for the Jacksonville Jaguars. I could become the next Dogecoin zillionaire tomorrow and I’m still just as far from a slant-and-go route as I ever have been. But do you know what I could do? Le Mans. Or Daytona. Heck, I’ve already raced at the Nürburgring, and I’m just a dumb journalist.

Another awesome thing about the fact that the best racing drivers may not be competing at the highest levels? We get to hang out with them. Just this weekend I watched Bryan Heitkotter and Tom O’Gorman–two guys who got rare shots at the big time because of their immense talent, but ultimately lost them because of their lack of funding–compete in the Gridlife Touring Cup, a series with a remarkably low barrier to entry. In what other sport do you get to socialize and compete with an elite athlete in your chosen skill on fairly level footing? Yeah, kind of none.

While it’s fun to play the “What if?” game and imagine what would happen if you dropped a multi-time G Street autocross champion into a spec hot lap challenge against an F1 regular, I think we also need to appreciate the unique situation that results from the lack of access to the highest levels of our sport.

Who’s the best racer in the world? You might just be pitted next to them at your next track day.

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Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
8/30/21 11:12 a.m.

JG don't sell yourself short "just a dumb journalist", if we asked your mom I'm sure she'd tell us you've done many other dumb things as well ( note my mother will confirm I'm a veritable Renaissance man of dumbness).

As for the article; I say that all the time. On any given weekend you can find hugely talented guys at local events who will never be known. It's one of the down sides of our sport / hobby.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/30/21 1:04 p.m.
Tom1200 said:

Renaissance man of dumbness

I'd like that on a t-shirt, please and thank you.

Junghole
Junghole SuperDork
8/30/21 1:08 p.m.

What are you guys talking about? 
ahem. https://www.raceofchampions.com/this-is-roc

"Sébastien Loeb, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, MotoGP legends Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Mick Doohan, eight-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen and serial NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson."

if there are better drivers out there, they just didn't show up. Specifically looking at the pompous turd known as "Lewis Hamilton". 

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
8/30/21 1:15 p.m.
Junghole said:

What are you guys talking about? 
ahem. https://www.raceofchampions.com/this-is-roc

"Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, MotoGP legends Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Mick Doohan, eight-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen and serial NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson."
 

if there are better drivers out there, they just didn't show up. 

Many a talented driver has been priced out of the professional ranks. We have three locally; one of them lapped the entire field in his class at the RunOffs. 

logdog (Forum Supporter)
logdog (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UberDork
8/30/21 1:20 p.m.

Like there is any doubt who the best racer is! laugh

 

Junghole
Junghole SuperDork
8/30/21 1:22 p.m.
Tom1200 said:
Junghole said:

What are you guys talking about? 
ahem. https://www.raceofchampions.com/this-is-roc

"Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, MotoGP legends Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Mick Doohan, eight-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen and serial NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson."
 

if there are better drivers out there, they just didn't show up. 

Many a talented driver has been priced out of the professional ranks. We have three locally; one of them lapped the entire field in his class at the RunOffs. 

Yes, and I think GRM could make a grassroots version of ROC. what if they did a multi course event where the drivers from all disciplines had to take the same 1988 cutlass Ciara automatic through every course? Rally, autox, circle track, drag strip. And have some GRM guys there to keep the thing running. This sounds so familiar. 

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
8/30/21 1:59 p.m.

In reply to logdog (Forum Supporter) :

I see no reason for further discussion.................

ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter)
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
8/30/21 2:16 p.m.

As pointed out in the article, there's really no scouting or farm system that gets the most talented drivers to the top of the sport.  But one advantage of racing is that there are very few sports where you can objectively quantify who's the best like you can in racing, and the job is singular- go beat the other guys.  You can argue all day about Lebron vs. KD vs. Steph etc. and not really get anywhere, there are too many variables.

One of the great things about club racing is that while money and support are still a (big) factor, for the most part the best drivers really do win.  There are plenty of stories about talented club racers getting their shot at a pro event and surprising everyone.

Funny related story- I raced this weekend and was in the paddock next to a 20-something guy in my class.  As I'm a new racer and he had never driven the track before, after the morning Time Trials session we were talking and trying to figure out where to brake, shift, etc.  Flash forward to the race two sessions later... I was feeling pretty good about picking up two seconds and kinda maybe threatening the middle of the pack.  He broke the track lap record and finished 1 second behind the leader.  I feel like there's a guy like that at every track, every weekend of the year.

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
8/30/21 3:29 p.m.

I think the closest thing to a scouting/farm system is taking racers from sim racing like GT Academy. You can do sim racing in the big leagues on a regional autocross budget.

chuyler2
chuyler2 New Reader
8/30/21 4:25 p.m.

In reply to GameboyRMH :

Came here to say this exactly.  Sim Racing, whether it's GT Academy or iRacing, levels the playing field down to the cost of a gaming system and racing wheel.  iRacing can get more immersive with more expensive equipment but a modest laptop and wheel can get you in the big race.  From there, it's all skill and race craft and the hours it takes to hone those skills won't cost you any more than a monthly subscription. 

In fact, I'd say that's a better test of talent within it's environment than many olympic sports.  To complete at skiing, skating, or cycling, you need a lot of money for equipment, rental time on the slopes/ice/arena, that prevents the true talent from bubbling to the top of their sport.

Steve Gallagher
Steve Gallagher
8/30/21 5:12 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

I am an ex pro snow skier. There are plenty of guys on the mountain that I would never want in the gate next to me. There is amazing talent out there who never spent a day in competition. Cars it is the same

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
8/30/21 5:50 p.m.

In reply to accordionfolder :

I had the wonderful experience of racing against Alex Gurney in Showroom Stock C. I was proud of myself because I reset the track record for the class...........oops nope. Three spots up the time sheet was Mr Gurney; he'd gone soemthing like 3 tenths faster. My friend was all excited that I did so well, I thanked him but also mentioned that in a ten lap race I'd be 3 seconds behind. I went 4 tenths faster in the race.............so did Mr Gurney. Where I would make a minor bobble here and there he was perfect everywhere. I also notice in two corners he went 2ft deeper on the brakes. It wasn't a huge difference and I don't think most people would notice but for me it was night and day obvious.

I was once on track with Scott Russel (World Superbike Champ) I manged to follow him for three corners (Willow Springs turns 3-6) and it was the same deal it was phenomenal to see what he was doing.

My mentor still tells me he thinks I had what it took to ride a 125cc GP bike at the Gran Prix level; 30 years later I remained unconvinced of that. I may have rode well but I just wasn't willing to commit my entire life for the "chance" I might make it. 

Which brings us back to the topic at hand; if you have any sort of talent in the classic stick and ball sports you're not taking near the risks someone trying to make it in racing is. The worst case is you'll end up with a 4 year degree from a regional college. In racing it's very easy to end up broke, divorced or dead.    

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
8/30/21 7:09 p.m.

Likely one that doesn't do it on a racetrack. At the moment, that means Ogier

France's Sebastien Ogier drives his Toyota Yaris WRC during Day 2 of the Rally Monte Carlo 2021, in Gap, France, Jan. 22, 2021. (EPA Photo)

Teh E36 M3
Teh E36 M3 SuperDork
8/30/21 7:18 p.m.

Boris Said

billstewartx
billstewartx New Reader
8/30/21 7:24 p.m.

travis!!!  

he smoked mt washington ...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32I0Qso4sDg&t=150s

captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
8/30/21 10:16 p.m.

Kimi or Carlos Sainz, that's the competition, it's between those two. 

Meporsche
Meporsche
8/31/21 6:55 a.m.

When much younger (less old) I was fortunate enough to race alongside some kid in his first race in a lime green 944 turbo at an EMRA race in Louden.   I didn't race beside him very long, maybe a few seconds.  At lunch, I struck up a conversation with him.   Turns out he's David Donahue (yes, progeny of the late, great Mark Donahue).   We had a great talk about all things, his mom forbidding him to race, vague memories of his dad, what he hoped to accomplish.  And for the entire weekend, no one got close to his lap times.

Well, it turned out that he accomplished quite a bit.  The name didn't hurt but he earned it all.   Loved being able to point to him when he was on TV and tell the kids, "yep, I used to race with that guy".   You just never know where they'll come from.

SlowHonda
SlowHonda
8/31/21 2:45 p.m.

I race and play hockey for fun. If I have a scheduled hockey game in the middle of the Stanley Cup Finals, I play and watch later or not at all. If I have a race, I watch formula 1 or whatever later. Racing is a real thrill and although I am a competitive guy, my biggest competition is likely myself (and I always know what THAT guy is doing). Sports of any kind are meant to be played and watching others do it is only secondary. We all know how good some regional races can be to watch compared to some professional races and even though they are not as fast or as skilled, it is still good entertainment but it is  even better to be in the race than watch it, so it doesn't really matter who is the best in the world.

NorseDave
NorseDave Reader
8/31/21 10:38 p.m.

In <basketball / football / baseball / etc.> they take the best athletes and make them rich.  In <many other sports> they take the rich and make them the best athletes.  

 

randyracer
randyracer New Reader
9/2/21 12:03 p.m.

Great topic!  In racing, the mechanical bit (car) and the team (prep and strategy) are so important that the driver is just one part of the equation.  And the higher one races, the more important it becomes.  The TEAM.   Tiger could win with Goodwill clubs, and same for a great tennis player with any ol racquet,  but against good competition, you are nowhere without the right car, prep and team.

 

 

randyracer
randyracer New Reader
9/2/21 12:17 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :    "I may have rode well but I just wasn't willing to commit my entire life for the "chance" I might make it."  Also, "...in stick and ball sports you're not taking near the risks someone trying to make it in racing is....In racing it's very easy to end up broke, divorced or dead."  

Yes, yes, yes.  I was willing to commit what little I had (my whole life) to "making it" in racing.  And with several lucky breaks, I pretty much did.

Andy Lally and Spencer Pumpelly are two prime current examples of highly talented racers who did the same thing, and are now true pros paid to drive, not just salesmen bringing sponsorship.

I also agree that at any event there often are locals who woulda coulda shoulda been true pros if they wanted it badly enough.  But at the same time, there are very, very few who possess the rare combination of traits that lead to success in the racing profession, especially the narrow field of road racing.  And it is even more difficult without a famous racing family.  Fact is that is simply a huge help opening doors, obviously.  Not complaining, it's just the nature of the sport.

Thanks for an interesting topic and terrific Auto-X magazine all these years, JG, David, Tim family and staff.

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
9/2/21 3:21 p.m.

In reply to randyracer :

I read your columns every month so I'm very familiar with how much you've sacrificed to get there.

My favorite wise crack is I only lacked three things to be a professional; commitment, money and talent.

Brett_Murphy (Agent of Chaos)
Brett_Murphy (Agent of Chaos) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/2/21 4:05 p.m.

Any toddler with a new toy car. 

jharry3
jharry3 GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/2/21 4:45 p.m.

Shades of :

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven

by Mark Twain

Where Captain Stormfield learned that everyone was ranked by their real potential if life was fair, not the actual accomplishments they had achieved while walking the earth.

 

Kreb (Forum Supporter)
Kreb (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
9/2/21 5:06 p.m.

I am, you guys just haven't seen me yet ;) 

But seriously, I grew up in a motorcycle racing family. Every time the national tour came to town there were 2 or 3 local hotshoes who would give the pros a run for their money. My sense was that the top five or so pro riders were all of roughly equivalent skill and represented the absolute best out there, but that the rest of the thirty or so top guys were interchangeable with regional pro-am champs. 

There were exceptions though. Kenny Roberts was kinda the Michael Jordan of Road Racing in the late 70s and early 80s.

hybridmomentspass
hybridmomentspass Reader
9/4/21 9:44 a.m.
Tom1200 said:

JG don't sell yourself short "just a dumb journalist", if we asked your mom I'm sure she'd tell us you've done many other dumb things as well ( note my mother will confirm I'm a veritable Renaissance man of dumbness).

As for the article; I say that all the time. On any given weekend you can find hugely talented guys at local events who will never be known. It's one of the down sides of our sport / hobby.

 

Your last bit is spot on, there are many great racers out there but they'll never hit that top echelon due to finances etc

Im in the middle of the Ben Collins book, no, I dont think he's the best, but using him as an example.
He was looking at a F1 type ride and they said he would have to bring 1.5M pounds to get into the seat... few have that sort of coin.

And I dont think that was F1, but something along those lines (I'll have to go back and find the passage). But here's a good driver in various cars but he couldnt get to that bigger race due to funds (and maybe he does something later, Im only halfway, dont spoil it for me! lol).

How many great drivers are at the track events but cant afford to be a 'racer' much more than that?

 

 

Also, Ive got a liking to Scott Pruett, always pulled for him.

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
9/4/21 12:35 p.m.

Any time I think about a "best ever" at anything, I'm looking at people who have been able to find success for more than one team. With racing, if someone can win a championship with one team, then go to a different team with different equipment, engineers, etc and still win championships... they are clearly very talented.

If we're going to talk about "best ever" across multiple driving disciplines I'm looking at drivers that have found success across multiple top tier racing series.

That said I nominate Mario Andretti.

Formula 1 champion with race wins in NASCAR, IndyCar, and the World Sportscar Championship. He's won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Daytona, three time winner of 12 Hours of Daytona, 2nd overall at LeMans.

I'd give Dan Gurney a close second, but it's hard to place him above a driver with similar accomplishments + an F1 chamionship.

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