Saturday, July 19, 2008

Racing into the Past

I've been watching Formula One racing on a regular basis for the first time since college. Back in those days Michael Schumacher was driving for Benetton and I cheered for him because 1) he was German, an 2) he had a pretty cool looking car. The racing this season has been far more engaging than I remember from back in those days, with three or four teams consistently contending for the podium finishes each week. This week's German Grand Prix though leaves me feeling a bit nostalgic. The Hockenheim track used to be among my favorites. It was over 4 miles long with most of the track sprinting through the woods on long straightaways. It was perhaps the closest thing F1 had to flat-out oval racing, with a few chicanes thrown in to keep the speeds from getting too outrageous. In the late 90s though, the F1 powers that be threatened to leave Hockenheim unless the track was shortened. As a result, the portion of the track that gave Hockenheim its character--the high speed straights through the forests--were snipped out all together, leaving it a boring, unimaginative shell of it's former self.

Through the magic of TV, today was the first time I had a chance to see the track in its current state and I find myself torn emotionally. Part of me wishes that they'd kept the wooded portion of the old layout intact, even if F1 refused to race the full layout. They got the shorter track they wanted in a re-design. The 'full' track could have been used for sports car races and motorcycles, much in the same way that the 20+km Nürburgring Nordschlief is still used for 24 hour races and public access but is ignored by modern F1 (with rare exception) in favor of a shorter, less interesting track. Instead, they plowed under most of the racecourse at Hockenheim. That's where the other part of me is happy. Had they sold off the now unused land in order to make room for more commercial development it would have been a tragedy, but at least for now that's not the plan. Instead, the Germans are allowing nature to reclaim the former straightaways. It's a sad, but beautiful thing. These days we so often see forests turn to sub divisions and rolling plains turn into strip malls. It's so rare that we see transformation go the other way.

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