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The Past is as Muddled as Ever, Part 10,358

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#1 DCapps

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Posted 26 November 2017 - 19:54

At The Old Motor, David Greenlees wrote this comment when referring to the Blitzen Benz at Brighton Beach in 1912 (http://theoldmotor.com/?p=165781):


One thing to keep in mind here is some of the cars mentioned in the period press reports were owned by the Ernest Moross “traveling racing circus” promoted by William Pickens. Both were shady characters, and the races were scripted and rigged. Secondly, most race results in the press at the time were inaccurate due to the rush to meet deadlines; many reporters phoned in their story and when printed the facts were often inaccurate. In most of the races a “new record” was set and if the races lasted two or more days another faster “record” would be set each day.



I think that Greenless expresses the general opinion of Moross and Pickens held by most those today, although one could suggest that it is perhaps more than a bit over-broad and tinged with more than a tad of presentism when it comes to at least Moross. Plus, one can suggest that there would seem to be quite a difference between races being scripted from those being rigged.


Although Greenlees does make a case for looking with a bit of askance at the reporting for this event in the examples he provides, I have some serious reservations regarding his broad assertion about the press and race meeting results: "...most race results in the press at the time were inaccurate due to the rush to meet deadlines; many reporters phoned in their story and when printed the facts were often inaccurate." While one certainly does encounter some reports that often read more akin to a modern infomercial regarding an upcoming event or the report of a race meet, in my experience I have to admit that, overall, the automotive journals of the era and the newspapers tend to do a very credible job when it come to reporting motor sport events. Again, there are some that are essentially nonsensical space-fillers (to say nothing of fantastical whoppers at times), but read enough of these contemporary articles and one tends to be impressed by how much they actually get correct. Perhaps having now read literally thousands upon thousands of contemporary race meet reports from the period prior to 1921, I can sense the wheat from the chaff, if you will.


What really struck me, however, is the general notion that contemporary reports for race meetings during this era are suspect. This, of course, is the basis for the Russ Catlin School of Auto Racing History. The Betts, Bob Russo, and even Charles Lytle among others defending Catlin, as well as others today continuing to defend and accept his version of things. While The Old Motor, among others, certainly has done some excellent work regarding digging through the past and sorting out more than a few puzzles, that it can still make such broad generalizations is not very heartening. While I am certain Greenlees is miffed with me, the issue is not what he attempted to do, which was point out the many issues regarding the ways the Benz machines were represented in the press, but making such a general statement about these reports apparently based upon the single race meeting. Yes, the reports offered do raise the eyebrows, but...


I admit that when I was still a racing fan and enthusiast and initially delving the topic of early US racing, I kept Catlin's skepticism fully in mind and generally approached the material with that mindset. Once I doffed being a racing fan/enthusiast and approach the topic as a historian, it was soon quite obvious that Catlin and others greatly exaggerated any issues with the contemporary reporting of race meetings. Indeed, as mentioned, I still tend to be impressed by how much they get correct versus the errors that are often inherent in writing that proverbial "first draft of history." Plus, one also realizes that there are corrections and revisions made, especially in the automotive journals, which one discovers after reading enough of them.


#2 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 November 2017 - 23:51

I totally agree with you, Don. The quality of many old magazine and newspaper reports is certainly much better than what the general public is prepared to admit. While it's pretty easy to find examples of bad standards of reporting, to make such broad statements is not only short-sighted, but also very contra-productive. I don't want to sound too critical of David Greenless, since I generally regard him as one of the "good guys", but I have had my own experience with him several years ago, when I suggested that his lineage of a car of a dear friend of his was perhaps not what he thought it was, and offered a few period sources to ponder. His answer was very brusque, and along the well known lines of "period reports are not reliable, period".

It's a popular aversion, especially amongst owners and caretakers of historic cars. I think this is the old Griff Borgeson School shining through: oral history from survivors of the era is always given preference over written period sources, not least because it makes those who had the opportunity to talk to the oldtimers the keepers of The Absolute Truth. There certainly is a tendency to disregard the findings of people with minimal to no hands-on experience of historic racing cars, who keep their noses buried in books, newspapers or other documents. Especially when they're sitting in far-away Europe, but that's another story altogether... :rolleyes:  ;)

#3 DCapps

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Posted 27 November 2017 - 01:31

Michael, heaven knows that I am one to talk, but I tend to think that more than a few in the restoration/antique car business tend at times to be highly selective in their sources, becoming extremely highly miffed when it comes to questions regarding the various artifacts that they are either directly involved with or have opinions, often strong ones, about. As useful as oral history truly is for historians, sadly, its use in motor sport history leaves a great deal, to put it mildly, to be desired. It is very, very rare that an oral history session relating to motor sport is structured and then conducted to the standards that academic historians demand. Far too much of motor sport oral history tends to be rather pleasant and quite entertaining rambling, often interesting and occasionally even very informative, but, alas, much of it is of questionable use for historians or historic purposes.


This  not the first time that I have encountered such comments regarding the veracity pertaining to contemporary sources within the material at The Old Motor. As much as I do like the material presented there, more than a few times I have had to bite my tongue and sit on my hands when it comes to some of the racing material. That the Arthur Means/Russ Catlin championships seem to still be held as valid, for instance, within the site does not inspire confidence and tends to support the Russ Catlin attitude towards contemporary materials.


It is the combination, whenever possible, of hands-on investigations of artifacts with the toiling away in the research in the archives and contemporary materials that more often than not leads to some semblance determining just what the story of something just might be. However, when that hands-on work is tainted by poor archival research or a dismissal of material, well, you can't have it both ways... Those of us who toil in the archival vineyards are acutely aware of the problems with some of the material that is available and accept them and work around them, usually looking for additional sources elsewhere.


As I have said, in general, I do like skimming through The Old Motor site and it has definitely solved some very challenging puzzles, but there are times when it comes to the early racing items that I find myself wondering....


At any rate, given some of the research work and other efforts that I am involved in, this thing just struck me wrong....

#4 Allan Lupton

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Posted 27 November 2017 - 11:03

When the VCC of GB had a Dating Panel and I was on it, we did the majority of our research on pre-1919 cars using contemporary sources - motoring and sporting magazines mainly as we had them, but did not have or have easy access to newspapers.


We found that most of the magazines, European and US, that we used had high reporting standards and lived up to them so far as they could. When describing the cars, they were to some extent limited by what the manufacturer (or agent) was prepared to tell them but in those days they were pretty open about most things.


What I've seen in auctioneers' and dealers' descriptions of more modern old vehicles (post Second War) is either the result of modern magazines being written by people who don't really know so make it up as they go along, or selective use of what has been written, whether it be right or not.


I cannot believe that race reports were any worse, and as for dictating over the telephone, since that was normal practice for many decades it would be second nature for the parties at both ends of the telephone. Then as now reporting the accidents would have more priority than historians would like, but that's newspapers.


Don't get me onto oral history!

#5 DCapps

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Posted 27 November 2017 - 16:12

Don't get me onto oral history!


Allan, I won't, but I will point out that an interview by a journalist for an article or a profile might be of interest for historians, however, that is not the same as an oral history interview. These interviews are highly structured and require much preparation and discipline on the part of the interviewer -- a good part of that discipline focused on keeping the subject on track. Needless to say, they are a real pain in the butt to do properly. I admit that I have screwed up more than a few over the years for various reasons, usually thanks to not keeping the person being interviewed on topic -- you can only press so far, of course. Plus, a few tanked thanks to technical issues or failures, which is on the interviewer, which in the days of taping was a real headache and always seemed to happen at the worst possible times.


I still cringe whenever I see a video of a group of drivers reminiscing...

#6 Eric Dunsdon

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Posted 27 November 2017 - 16:55

I was once with a chap who did a lengthy interview with John Surtees for a local radio station only to find that in the excitement of the moment he had forgotten to switch the recorder on!, Luckily for him Mr Surtees was kind enough to do the whole thing again.


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Posted 27 November 2017 - 22:15

Bob?  ;) If so, he sent me a copy of that interview...marvelous.  :up:

#8 Doug Nye

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Posted 09 December 2017 - 22:10

The problem of oral history is well known - if not particularly well understood.  


Many years ago I realised how careful one needed to be with accepting personal accounts at face value, on the simple basis that the interviewee could say "But I was there..." or "But I did that...".  And I was not - and I did not.


As Jenks, ever sceptical, would say, "Yeah but..." - and we would then seek to evaluate what we had been told, by whom, and - most significantly to my mind - how speedy had been the response to the question. I learned that there was indeed some correlation between speed of response - and inaccuracy when double-checked.  Often the more articulate the interviewee, the less accurate was his account. If the interviewee took some time just to think before responding - actually trawled his memory, considered the query - the information was generally so much better.  The best at this - you might be surprised to hear - was actually Moss during the period we were trying to rebuild his damaged memory.  I would show him photographs (racing photographs - now come on, be serious) - and he would study them intently, knuckle his temples, and then might blurt out "YES!  I've got it - I DO remember that..." - and it was a minor battle won in a long, long war.


The duff gen matter reached its height, for me, when Rivers Fletcher of ERA and BRM fame - who was a dear old stick but who could simultaneously act as a terrible old self-promoting poseur - complained to me bitterly that "motor racing history today is simply being recorded and presented in greater detail than it EVER was at the time...and, and (splutter) I WAS THERE!", he near-enough wailed.


Well yes, indeed he was.  


But he hadn't taken sufficient note for posterity, and nor did he ever appreciate that consulting contemporary documents, correspondence, reports etc gives one an alternative real-time source of inside evidence which the passage of time has not aged, nor altered - however unintentionally.  Human memory is fallible - simple as that.


Now then - have we had lunch yet?    :rolleyes:



#9 Ray Bell

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Posted 10 December 2017 - 14:12

I've experienced a very good example of this myself lately...

Describing race after race, someone has given lots and lots of wrong detail. One race, in fact, includes details of three different races at that circuit. And several inclusions of two particular drivers in events when they were never there that year.


Edited by Ray Bell, 10 December 2017 - 14:17.

#10 DCapps

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 04:14

A mea culpa: Some years ago, I was asked about a particular mission I participated in as a team leader while in my previous line of work as part of an oral history project, the tables being turned if you will. Somehow, the pertinent patrol report along with several related after action reports from others involved miraculously survived and had been found in the relevant archives. After being asked about certain, shall we say rather very sensitive aspects of the mission, I started to respond, but as I looked at the reports it dawned on me that even though I wrote one of the reports and was included in the others, I realized that for years I had confused certain parts of the mission in question with other similar missions that had taken place within a very short timeframe before and after the mission in question. It hit me that for years I had jumbled up and mixed various aspects of all those missions together over the intervening years. Only after taking some time and then re-reading and re-looking at the reports and other related material was I able to provide what was the best description of the events as I now remembered them, which was somewhat different in a few aspects than what I had thought over the intervening years. It was, to put it mildly, a rather humbling experience, but also an instructive one as well, driving home the reasons things are done they way they are.