Today Would Have Been Ayrton Senna's 61st Birthday

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Photo: DANIEL JANIN, PASCAL PAVANI/AFP (Getty Images)

On March 21, 1960, an icon was born in São Paulo, Brazil. Ayrton Senna de Silva was the middle child in a wealthy family, given the freedom to play and experiment as he wished. He learned to drive a Jeep and change gears without clutching at age 7. And he went on to become one of the most widely respected racing drivers of all time.

(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

Coming into racing as someone born after Senna’s death, it took me a while to appreciate him. Yes, I knew that nearly every current Formula One driver on the grid will cite Senna as their personal hero, that racers around the world still see him as a pinnacle of performance. But I struggled to appreciate him when I first found my way to F1.

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As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate Senna’s near-religious reverence for racing (even if I don’t always agree with it). He was one of the racers that blend man and machine so seamlessly that it could be difficult to tell them apart. No, he may not have been the smoothest driver, but you could count on Senna to be one of the fastest. He mastered the strange technique of rapidly pressing and lifting the throttle pedal as he went through corners as a way to regulate speed—something that seems almost counterintuitive but that could provide those crucial fractions of a second necessary to capture a fast lap.

There isn’t much more I can add to his story that other writers haven’t said more eloquently, endowed with more personal feeling—or that I haven’t said before.

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Ayrton Senna was a larger-than-life personality whose presence still lingers in the sport. Yes, he has served as an inspiration for the racers who hit the track today—but he spurred the development of safety techniques that have saved countless lives, and he donated incredible amounts of his personal fortune to combat poverty in Brazil. He set the tone for the drivers that would follow after him, defining the expectations the public has come to develop regarding what a driver should be. His philosophy of racing doubled as his philosophy for life, and I don’t think anyone has come to rival him in that regard.

“The harder I push, the more I find within myself. I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It’s lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations, and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation.”