Genetics and Motorsport

I used to be a fan of Formula One motorsport and one of the things that used to irritate me was the influx of ‘Son of Famous Driver’ competitors with the assumption that because their father was fast and competitive their son would be also. (I’m using male pronouns here because in F1 at least the competitors are almost exclusively male, I recognise there are fine female drivers in other disciplines).

While for something like athletics and other sports the physical component is obvious for most motorsports its somewhat less so. While a high level of fitness is helpful (and very necessary at the higher levels of motorsport) and overall health is also pretty much a requirement motorsport is not based on a direct use of the human body as many other sports are.

For this reason, that a top class driver requires a nebulous and not easily defined ‘talent’ for driving fast rather than anything directly obvious in the physical makeup I always found it strange that it was assumed that a fast drivers son would also be fast. I felt that it was making it more difficult for otherwise fast drivers to enter the discipline who weren’t lucky enough to have a famous father.

I was of this opinion until I attended a go-karting event with friends and family, when the time-sheets were handed in at the end of the event both myself, my brother and my father recorded the same average lap speed to a tenth of a second. There were about thirty competitors and the spread of times was about four seconds.

This made me wonder if perhaps there actually is something to the genetic heritage of racing drivers. My question is if this is the case and what that genetic component would be, as a fast and skilled driver isn’t so obviously connected to direct physical prowess as other sports.

btw interestingly I recall reading that the assumption that drivers have sharper reflexes than the rest of us is something of a misconception, what is more important is the mental ability to anticipate what the track and car is going to do rather than merely react to it.

I’ve wondered the same thing about golfers-in reverse, as it seems that no son (or daughter) of a famous golfer has gone on to do much of note (Tommy Armour III hung around on the PGA tour for a number of years, never coming close to the accomplishments of his famous grandfather). [Feel free to go back to the two Tom Morrises if you wish.] Comparing this to famous sons of star baseball/basketball/football players, I guess the sample sizes in golf are much smaller, but that would seem to only partly explain it, since you’d think they’d have a lot of built-in advantages that they would share with race car drivers; living daily with the perfect role model/mentor, having plenty of money and hence free time to devote to the game, and so on.

I’ll just point out that nepotism (unworthy offspring) is much more common in the racing world; AJ Foyt can trot out his grandson every weekend if he wishes, because hey he’s AJ Foyt, he owns the team, and who is going to tell him that his grandson stinks? In golf you pretty much have to sink or swim on your own.