Racing is plagued. For years, if not decades, what were once exciting races have turned into parade laps. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might get an interesting battle for fifth or sixth. “Yay..... I guess...” you say to yourself, while you try to convince your friends to watch a race with you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be better. And it could learn a lot from sumo.
Yes, sumo. I know, I know, it sounds nuts. What do large adult sons of Japan, smashing their bodies together in a chorus of fightiness and flesh, have to do with racing? Racing is, after all, supposed to be about being lean and lithe. And when people ask questions like that, I just assume they’ve never seen a real bout of sumo in their lives.
There are a few things you need to know about sumo. First of all, it’s been going on for centuries, and as such it’s wrapped up in matters of tradition and ceremony. Secondly, there’s an emphasis not on just brute physical strength and technique, but dignity and grace. And thirdly—and most importantly, for our purposes—there are no weight classes.
Unlike virtually all major forms of major fighting sports, there are no weight classes in professional sumo. The biggest guys regularly go up against the smallest guys. And while you might think that would just get the smaller guys flat-out murdered and flattened, it’s rather done the opposite. The smaller guys aren’t merely just “small.” To survive and win, they’ve become scrappy.
In short, they use strategy and tactics in ways the big guys can’t. While the big wrestlers often rely on brute strength and sheer mass to push their opponents out of the ring, the more svelte fighters rely on speed, quick movements, and throwing techniques, often using the weight of the bigger wrestlers against themselves.
And despite the stereotype of sumo wrestlers just being enormously, wonderfully fat and calling it a day, the best of them all, the grand champions, the Yokozuna, are often scrappers themselves.
For an extreme version of this, check out this classic match between Konishiki and Kotoinazuma from back in the 1990s. At the time, Konishiki was near his peak weight of 661 pounds, making him the all-time largest sumo wrestler ever. Kotoinazuma, well, wasn’t. Fast forward to 3:09 if you don’t feel like watching all the truly glorious pre-fight posturing, ceremony, and staredowns:
Faced with the seemingly-unstoppable bulk of Konishiki (AKA “Dump Truck,” AKA “Meat Bomb,” seriously), Kotainazuma deftly steps out of Konishiki’s way. When Kotainazuma realized that his opponent’s next move was to probably use him as a support for his massive weight, he simply took the move away. Without Konishiki’s own legs supporting him, the laws of physics took over. Konishiki went down, hard.
And while the Konishiki-Kotainazuma match features an exaggeration of the Big Guy/Small Guy trope, you see it in milder—but no less dramatic—form all the time. Here’s Ura, a wrestler famed for his unorthodox style, going for what looks to almost be a judo-style throw when faced with someone with a more traditional pushing technique:
Faced with an immovable object/unstoppable force problem, Ura didn’t just accept a seemingly inevitable loss. He went for a different strategy entirely.
Instead of rejecting the lack of parity between wrestlers with different advantages and disadvantages, sumo embraces them, enabling opponents to push the boundaries of technique and strategy.
You’re probably still wondering what all this sumo nonsense has to do with auto racing, but trust me when I say I’m getting there.
Most racing, over the past few decades, has had a similar parity problem. There have been endless accusations that too much emphasis was placed on the car, and not nearly enough emphasis was placed on the driver. Some cars were much too fast on straightaways, owing to huge amounts of power, and that favored some drivers of others. On the flip side, some cars were way too light, favoring the people racing through tight, twisty courses.
The racing world has tried to solve this issue through strict, disciplinarian means. Some, like NASCAR, have reacted by making all of their cars virtually identical in performance. Others, like the FIA WEC series, have accepted the inevitability of disparity, but then enforce strict class systems. There’s the LMP1 class of prototypes, which is the fastest class. Then there’s LMP2, which is still made up of prototypes, but is a step down in virtually every way. Finally, there are the GTE classes, made up of production-based cars, but even slower than the prototypes.
Each car is eligible for both a class win and the overall win, but let’s face it. If you’re not in LMP1, your chances of an overall win go south. Quickly. And since Toyota is really the only big manufacturer left in the LMP1 class, its virtually guaranteed a WEC championship unless the drivers just begin spontaneously vomiting on themselves throughout each race.
Which means that, while the cars themselves are fast and interesting and exciting, the racing isn’t.
To fix that, racing needs to learn from sumo. Racing needs to embrace disparity.
When faced with disparity, people improvise. They try new strategies. They figure out how to fight, and how to win. Each match—and each race—would bring new challenges that must be surmounted. The real winners would be the fans.
I know, it sounds nuts. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, with certain cars dominating and other cars getting crushed. But the reality is that racing embraced a lack of parity in the past, and frankly, it was awesome. Touring car races used to feature stunning matchups of Camaro versus Lotus, of Mustang versus Mini. The big, heavy muscle cars would blast down the straightaways. The little Brits would scamper through the corners. It’s great to watch, as you can see in this Australian classics race from 2014:
Back in 1971, at the old Crystal Palace circuit, Camaros with bellowing V8s went right up against buzzy Vauxhalls, and the result was better than virtually anything today, except for Stadium Super Trucks, of course:
To save racing, racing needs to embrace that which was previously considered a problem to be eliminated. It needs to embrace cars, all of the cars, in all of their perfect diversity. It needs to pit the big and the heavy against the little and nimble.
It needs to learn from sumo.