Without media support, motor sport needs to quietly stand up for itself

In the 21st Century, the only time the public at large hears about motor sport is when something goes wrong. For the most part, gone are the days – if indeed they ever existed – when the mainstream media would follow the progress of British drivers the world over, and the general public’s knowledge of motor sport was on a par with football. It seems the only time motor sport enthusiasts can now discuss their passion with friends, family or colleagues is when they have to answer questions about what went wrong, why someone got hurt, or why people were doing something so dangerous in the first place.

Two such incidents have arisen in the last seven days. The first was on the Snowman Rally up in the north of Scotland, when a spectator was killed after being struck by a car. The second was two days ago, when debris from a crashing car flew through and over a fence during a support race at Daytona Speedway, resulting in multiple injuries. Both of these made a bigger impact on print and online media than all the ‘good news’ motor sport stories of the last six months – the conclusion of the 2012 F1 World Championship, the Paris-Dakar Rally and the Monte Carlo Rally – combined.

Times like these are hard for those close to motor sport. Non-specialist media reporting of such events can make particularly grim reading for those with an understanding of the sport. Even if they are fair and broadly accurate descriptions, phrases such as “out of control car” and “flying debris” can really jar with enthusiasts. In the cold light of day, the kind of language used to inform the public can make motor sport seem lawless, wild, almost barbaric. And let’s not go into the inaccuracies that can run through such reports, such as printing pictures of cars and drivers totally unconnected to the incident in question. When one thinks of the number of people that are injured on a regular basis in soccer-related violence to very little media comment, it’s possible to understand why so many motor sport proponents get upset by mainstream media coverage.

However, I believe a more pro-active response is in order. Whilst the motor sport community is perhaps too small and fragmented to exert any kind of pressure on the mainstream media in the way supporters of other sports have, I would argue that each and every motor sport enthusiast – and even car enthusiast – has in them the responsibility to convey a positive image to the public at large. After all, if it is to a known enthusiast that many people will turn to better understand a negative incident in motor sport, then it is probably in relation to this enthusiast that people will form their opinions of motor sport. In essence, if motor sport is to be acceptable to society at large in this politically correct age, then its proponents must too be socially acceptable.

With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a set of points that I believe motor sport enthusiasts, in particular competitors, have a duty to follow. In fact, I’d be willing to wager the vast majority of us already do most of these things most of the time, in which case they are things we really ought to run up the flagpole a bit better:

  • prioritise safety in one’s on-road driving. With the right to drive at speed in a controlled environment comes the responsibility to use a vehicle safely in a public environment. Adhere to speed limits. Give cyclists excessive amounts of space. Don’t run orange lights. And most importantly of all, adopt a zero-tolerance policy to drink driving;
  • be meticulous in vehicle maintenance and preparation. Invest in good quality tyres. Carry spare bulbs and warning triangles. Go the extra mile, if you’ll excuse the pun, to make explicit the importance of looking after your vehicle;
  • acknowledge the environmental impacts of the car. Even if one doesn’t believe in climate change, there are many people out there (myself included) who do. Limiting the use of one’s car when not driving for pleasure, such as by using public transport or cycling, may seem tokenistic. But by the same measure, making small-scale behavioural changes can represent a really pro-active attempt to reflect on the less socially acceptable dimensions of motor sport;
  • moderate your online presence. I recorded an interesting spike in activity on my blog after the Snowman accident, with particular interest in articles that mentioned the driver involved. This may of course be coincidental, but it did set me thinking about what people can find out about others with only a few keystrokes. Avoid exaggeration if you’re reporting on your exploits on a road rally (I’ve been guilty of this in the past, I admit). Don’t brag about ‘hooning’. And don’t post up things that could be seen as endorsing reckless behaviour on the roads;
  • try to refrain from dismissing incidents as freak accidents. In one of my other big interests – aviation – a determination to get to the root cause of every accident is what has made commercial flying today as safe as it is. Accidents don’t ‘just happen’, in every case a number of factors come together to contribute to the end result. As such, it’s more important to focus on the thorough investigation that will follow and the changes – no matter how small – that will be made where appropriate.

If all this sounds preachy, I apologise. But in the absence of a national media that are prepared to report the good news stories of motor sport as well as the blood, guts and broken bones, it has to be up to competitors, officials and supporters themselves to present a balanced view of motor sport to an increasingly sceptical society. And what better place to start than with our own everyday behaviours?

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