Category Archives: sports

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein

I found this to be a bit too sentimental and obvious. It’s difficult to criticize such a good-natured story, especially one told by a dog (Enzo), and if it were only a matter of the cliche-filled story of a man (Denny) who is talented and looking for a break, whose wife dies of cancer, whose troubles with difficult in-laws lead him to lose custody of his young daughter, topped by the accusation of child molestation involving his nubile niece… I might leave well enough alone.

But when the author tries to shoehorn little life lessons into the edges of this story by means of car racing parallels, it becomes a bit much:

“He says racing is doing.  It is being a part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment.”

“Ideally, a driver is a master of all that is around him, Denny says. Ideally, a driver controls the car so completely that he corrects a spin before it happens, he anticipates all possibilities. But we  don’t live in an ideal world. In our world, surprises sometimes happen, mistakes happen, incidents with other drivers happen, and a driver must react.”

“Often things happen to race cars in the heat of the race. A square-toothed gear in a transmission may break, suddenly leaving the driver without all of his gears. Or perhaps a clutch fails. Brakes go soft from overheating. Suspensions break. When faced with one of these problems, the poor driver crashes. The average driver gives up. The great drivers drive through the problem. They figure out a way to continue racing.”

“When the pressure is intense and the race is only half completed, a driver who is being chased relentlessly by a competitor realizes that he might be better off pushing from behind than pulling from the front. In that case, the smart move is to yield his lead to the trailing car and let the other driver pass. Relieved of his burden, our driver can tuck in behind and make the new leader drive his mirrors.”

“No race has ever been won in the first corner. But plenty of races have been lost there.”

The primary life lesson that Stein wants to impart to us is the repeated refrain, “The car goes where the eyes go.” In other words, your life can go in a direction that you yourself choose. You have to make conscious choices, and keep your eyes on the prize… While I have no disagreement with this, I found these little set pieces of driving advice to be terribly unsubtle, clunky even. But Stein is relentless in this tactic. And having all of these nuggets of wisdom transmitted by a dog, who cannot drive or even hold a steering wheel (Enzo laments more than once on his lack of opposable thumbs), and who has gleaned all of this by listening to his master speak and watching television, seems to be reaching too far for one book.

Near the end, after his wife has died and the head of Ferrari’s testing program has asked our Denny to test drive Ferraris in Maranello (!!), we have a final analogy. Because of course, life doesn’t travel in a straight line, and there may be obstacles on the course, but the car goes where the eyes go:

“A driver must have faith. In his talent, his judgment, the judgment of those around him, physics. A driver must have faith in his crew, his car, his tires, his brakes, himself.

The apex sets up wrong. He is forced off his usual line. He carries too much speed. His tires have lost grip. The track has gotten greasy. And he suddenly finds himself at the turn exit with no more track and too much speed.

As the gravel trap rushes at him, the driver must make decisions that will impact his race, his future. To tuck in would be devastating: wrenching the front wheels against their nature will only spin the car. To lift is equally bad, taking grip away from the rear of the car. What is to be done?

The driver must accept his fate. He must accept  the fact that mistakes have been made. Misjudgments. Poor decisions. A confluence of circumstance has landed him in this position. A driver must accept it all and be willing to pay the price for it. He must go off-track.

To dump the wheels. Even four. It’s an awful feeling both as a driver and as a competitor. The gravel that kicks up against the undercarriage. The feeling of swimming in muck. While his wheels are off the track, other drivers are passing him. They are taking his spot, continuing at speed. Only he is slowing down.

At this moment, a driver feels a tremendous crisis. He must get back on the gas. He must get back on the track.

Oh, the folly!

Consider the drivers who have been taken out of races by snapping their steering wheels, by overcorrecting to extremes and spinning their cars in front of their competitors. A terrible position to find oneself in –

A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.

The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

All of this might be acceptable in a light-weight, quick read. I’m a dog lover, and like a lot of guys I take pleasure in driving a car. But when on top of everything else Stein layers on a spiritual component:

“I don’t understand why people insist on pitting the concepts of evolution and creation against each other. Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one? That bodies evolve and souls evolve and the universe is a fluid place that marries them both in a wonderful package called a human being. What’s wrong with that idea?”

I remove a further star from my review. No further explanation or elaboration is given for this idea that “spiritualism and science are one.” But one of Enzo the dog’s refrains throughout the entire story is that dogs who are ready will return to this world as people in their next lives. Sure enough, when Enzo dies following Denny’s wife’s death, and Denny has moved to Italy with his daughter, and has of course gotten the chance to not only test drive cars for Ferrari, but actually race in their F1 program… to become world champion (!!), in the last scene of the book, Denny’s “greatest fans” come to say hello to him after he’s just won a race, telling him that he is “better, even, than Senna” (!!). An old man and his young grandson. Whose name is… wait for it… Enzo… *sigh*

Category: dog, novel, sports | Tags: ,

The Fight

by Norman Mailer

It is not until page 177 that the bell rings to begin the fight of the title. But, of course, the Rumble in the Jungle was so much more than just 15 rounds of boxing. Mailer was of course a white man, writing about a predominantly black sport. “For Heavyweight boxing was almost all black, black as Bantu. So boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love.”

He also had extraordinary access to Ali, and although it is clear who he would like to see win, the reportage manages to be simultaneously very fair and impartial while also quite personal and intimate. His sometime technique of writing about the character Norman in the third person is perhaps a part of how he manages this.

We get historical context, not just in terms of boxing, of who had defeated whom in the lead-up to the bout, technique, records, weights, training camps, and all the rest, but also socio-political context, on both the American and the African sides of the Atlantic. Who in America knew where Zaire was, even, before this fight? Mailer takes us from the Belgian Congo of 1880 to present-day Kinshasa and the presidential domain of President Mobutu, and into the stadium, under which holding cells for prisoners had been filled with 300 of the worst criminals of the city, 50 of them executed to serve as an example to all, a bid to quell the wave of violence in the city. Still, it seemed an inhospitable place for two Americans, even black Americans, to come for a world championship: “Manners became so bad that American Blacks were snarling at African Blacks.”

But Ali is comfortable in this realm, and as the movie When We Were Kings showed, the people of Kinshasa loved him. He spent a good deal of time – and there was plenty of time, after the fight was postponed when Foreman was cut in sparring – out among the people.

We learn about the various circles of people who surround the boxers – their trainer, and managers, and sparring partners, and lawyers, and brothers and sisters and wives and hangers-on… A one-man sport that feels like it travels with a team, or like a rock band on tour. We learn also about Mailer’s circle, about the other writers – somewhere near 200 journalists covered the fight – and where they stay and what access they have to the fighters, and the angle they are going for.

What is Mailer’s angle? He gives enormous respect to Foreman, and we learn a great deal about him and his entourage. Still, it is Ali who he knows as a friend, and as an insider, he is permitted access unheard of for others covering the fight. Most impressive, even more impressive than access to Ali’s dressing room before and after the fight, is Mailer’s run with Ali, in the African pre-dawn, with lions roaring in the distance. How many writers – or anyone – can say they’ve done that? This is the relationship and perspective that Mailer brings to his subject.

And then there is the fight. If you’ve seen it, you know how it went. And yet Mailer’s description brings detail and nuance and yes beauty to the fight. That he is able to do this is a result of course of the luxury of retrospect and reviewing, of time spent finding the bon mot. Ringside announcing this is not. After the first round:

“How does Ali dare? A magnificent round. Norman has few vanities left, but thinks he knows something about boxing. He is ready to serve as engineer on Ali’s trip to the moon. For Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person. He lives in fields of concentration where he can detect the smallest flicker of lack of concentration. Foreman has shown himself a lack of quiver flat to the possibility of a right. Who before this had dared after all to hit Forman with a right? Of late his opponents were afraid to flick him with a jab. Fast were Foreman’s hands, but held a flat spot of complacency before the right. He was not ready for a man to come into the ring unafraid of him. That offered its beauty. But frightening. Ali cannot fight every round like this. Such a pace will kill him in five. Indeed he could be worried as he sits in the corner. It has been his round, but what a force to Forman’s punches. It is true. Foreman hits harder than other fighters. And takes a very good punch. Ali looks thoughtful.”

And thoughtful is, ultimately, one of the best ways to describe this book. A brutal sport, and a brutal fight, described in terms that return to it its humanity. Because, after all, why do we care? Why do we want to watch two men fight with their hands in a land thousands of miles away? Because of the people involved, because they are people that at some level we can see reflected in ourselves and in our cultures. The Africans of Kinshasa are people, the fighters are people, the audience are people, and for one night we leave behind all of our differences except perhaps which of the two we are rooting for, and share in some basic way our humanity.

Category: biography, sports | Tags: , ,