Commentary: Off To The Races

Feb 17, 2017

Arenacross features off-road motorcycles racing on man-made dirt tracks that include steep jumps and obstacles. Introduced in the 1970s, it's just another example of the human competitive nature.
Credit shortCHINESEguy / Flickr - CC

From biblical birthrights to the Belmont Stakes, people have always been obsessed with finishing first. Racing is the most fundamental form of sporting competition and, for better and for worse, a part of human nature. Commentator Victor Wishna elaborates in “A Fan’s Notes.”

You may not even know about it, but there is an earth-moving event happening right downtown. More than 3,000 tons of dirt is being hauled in to the Sprint Center, dumped on the floor, and bulldozed into a twisting track of moguls, ramps and jumps.

It’s all in preparation for a weekend of indoor dirt-bike racing — one stop on a 14-city tour that culminates in the National Arenacross Championships in Las Vegas this May. For two full days here, amateurs and professionals will compete to see who can rev through the obstacle-strewn dirt course in one piece and in the fastest time.

What’s odd is that this doesn’t at all strike us as odd.

After all, from the moment we learned to walk — as a species, that is — we have yearned to race. The first recorded ancient Olympic Games, in 760 BC, featured only one event: a footrace. (Today, the Olympics awards two dozen gold medals for running and, yes, three more for walking.)

That’s just on dry land, of course—there’s also swimming, skiing, skating. And, throughout history, as soon as we could make something move, we were racing it — not just horses and chariots, but pigeons, pigs, snails, dogs and sleds, bicycles, and, of course, planes, trains, and automobiles. The faster and more powerful the better—NASCAR is the nation’s largest live spectator sport, second only to the NFL in TV viewership.

Heck, even eating — anything from hot dogs to raw oysters — has been repackaged into forms of racing. And it’s our favorite premise for fables and metaphors, from the tortoise and the hare, to the Space Race, to any and every political campaign.

Racing — with its one goal: get there first — is the most basic form of human competition. And for most people, not just sports fans, there is something inherently compelling about that. Indeed, scientists contend that "competitiveness" is a biological trait that co-evolved with our basic survival instincts. Economists tell us that competition is an essential force in maintaining productive and efficient markets. Dating experts—and reality shows—insist that even the human quest for love is its own form of competition.

Of course, our competitive nature can cause discord, and it’s easily triggered. Tell people they’re “just not winning anymore,” and beware the waves of fear and indignation.

Yet the coin has two sides: competition and cooperation. Teamwork and loyalty are also, for better and for worse, hardwired into the human spirit.

In that way competitive impulses can be channeled into a more civil society, as in sports themselves — sure, as a way to settle tribal conflicts without killing each other, as the ancient Greeks hoped, or just to bring thousands together to relieve those tensions vicariously through daredevils racing around a dirt track.

And if you happen to make it downtown this weekend to watch those colorful moto-crossers zipping and slamming their gas-powered bikes into heaping mounds of earth at high speeds, remember: It’s not crazy.

It’s who we are.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.