Col­li­sion course

What NASCAR can teach us about the com­pet­i­tive spirit.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY WRAY HER­BERT book­world@wash­post.com

TOP DOG The Sci­ence of Win­ning and Los­ing By Po Bron­son and Ash­ley Mer­ry­man Twelve. 335 pp. $27.99

The 1979 Day­tona 500 came down to a duel be­tween two veteran drivers, Don­nie Al­li­son and Cale Yar­bor­ough. Al­li­son was ahead on the fi­nal lap when Yar­bor­ough tried to sling­shot around on the in­side. Al­li­son cut across two lanes to block Yar­bor­ough’s move, but Yar­bor­ough re­fused to yield, and the two cars locked to­gether, forc­ing them into a crash on the third turn. Richard Petty took the check­ered flag, while Al­li­son and Yar­bor­ough ended up in a na­tion­ally tele­vised brawl on the in­field.

This is my sum­mary of a much longer nar­ra­tive in “Top Dog” of this 34-year-old in­ci­dent, which, ac­cord­ing to Po Bron­son and Ash­ley Mer­ry­man, trans­formed stock-car rac­ing into a na­tional pas­time. “Top Dog” is an “in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­pet­i­tive fire — what it is and how to get it,” and the au­thors in­clude this story to make a point about fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives and mo­ti­va­tion. The win­ner that day would take home a prize of $73,900, $15,000 more than the sec­ond-place fin­isher, and the ar­gu­ment is that cash prizes — and es­pe­cially such a dis­par­ity in re­wards — spark com­pet­i­tive fire.

Yet it’s hard to take that les­son from this tale. It could be that drivers drive faster or more reck­lessly when more money is at stake — and per­haps that makes for bet­ter tele­vi­sion. But it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make for bet­ter driv­ing. Cer­tainly nei­ther Al­li­son nor Yar­bor­ough be­came a bet­ter com­peti­tor as a re­sult of the sweet­ened prize that day. One could even ar­gue that end­ing up in a col­li­sion and a brawl is the op­po­site of ex­cel­lence in per­for­mance.

Bron­son and Mer­ry­man are gifted storytellers, and read­ers will be se­duced by th­ese richly tex­tured, leisurely nar­ra­tives. In­deed, much of this slen­der vol­ume is given over to such hu­man-in­ter­est sto­ries. The au­thors’ ap­proach is to cou­ple th­ese sto­ries, many from the world of sports, with a sci­en­tific study or two, se­lected to make a par­tic­u­lar ar­gu­ment about the ori­gins of com­pet­i­tive fire. But far too of­ten, on close read­ing, the sto­ries do not make the point Bron­son and Mer­ry­man hope to make — or don’t make it con­vinc­ingly. Many read­ers will be left scratch­ing their heads as they try to con­nect the sci­ence to the ex­am­ples.

Con­sider an­other ex­am­ple, this one from base­ball. Bron­son and Mer­ry­man tell the story of Hall of Fame short­stop Honus Wag­ner to make a point about the im­por­tance of birth or­der in spark­ing com­pet­i­tive fire. John “Hans” Wag­ner was born in 1874, the fourth of five brothers, and, as ev­ery base­ball fan knows, went on to have a bril­liant ca­reer, mostly with the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates. He ex­celled at all as­pects of the game, in­clud­ing hit­ting and field­ing, but the au­thors fo­cus on his base run­ning. Wag­ner held numer­ous records for steal­ing bases — the au­thors say be­cause he was a younger brother rather than first-born. They cite ev­i­dence that younger brothers are more dar­ing and ag­gres­sive — greater risk tak­ers — on the base path.

Do the au­thors really want us to be­lieve that lit­tle Han­sWag­ner­be­cametheim­mor­tal Honus Wag­ner be­cause he was the fourth son out of five? They must, or this lengthy bit of bi­og­ra­phy would not be in­cluded. But it’s per­plex­ing. Even if one ac­cepts the link be­tween birth or­der and risk-tak­ing — and it’s far from proven — this anal­y­sis re­duces Wag­ner’s all-star ac­com­plish­ments to one pos­si­ble in­flu­ence by the ex­clu­sion of many, many other pos­si­ble in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing phys­i­cal prow­ess, con­cen­tra­tion, hard work and grit.

You see my­point. Oneprob­lem, I be­lieve — and it’s a se­ri­ous one — lies with the topic it­self. Com­pet­i­tive fire is not a sci­en­tific con­cept, and it keeps shape-shift­ing in this anal­y­sis. Here it’s der­ring-do, and there it’s ex­cel­lence in per­for­mance, and here it’s sim­ply win­ning. Bron­son and Mer­ry­man say they can tell us how to ac­quire this trait, but in fact there are few use­ful lessons here. That’s be­cause com­pet­i­tive­ness is ubiq­ui­tous, the essence of the hu­man con­di­tion, man­i­fest in ev­ery board room, ev­ery fam­ily, ev­ery class­room, ev­ery sport­ing arena — and of­ten in lessthan-ad­mirable ways.

Sci­en­tists have been ask­ing nu­anced ques­tions about com­petive­ness and com­pe­ti­tion for many years, and they have some an­swers, but the an­swers are rarely tidy or com­plete — and al­most never cap­tured in an anec­dote. What’s more, when you strip away the sto­ries, Bron­son and Mer­ry­man’s sci­ence writ­ing is un­even. They ex­plain some in­flu­ences with ad­mirable clar­ity — home-field ad­van­tage, for ex­am­ple — but they are a bit wide-eyed and re­duc­tion­ist when it comes to the im­por­tance of ge­net­ics in com­petive­ness. Th­ese are all vari­ables that might af­fect com­pet­i­tive­ness un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, but in the end they do not add up to a new un­der­stand­ing of “the sci­ence of win­ning and los­ing.”

Wray Her­bert, the au­thor of “On Sec­ond Thought,” writes the “We’re Only Hu­man” blog.

PHO­TOS BY RIC FELD/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“Top Dog” con­tends that a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive — for in­stance, the cash prize for first place at the Day­tona 500 — spurs com­pe­ti­tion among drivers. In the 1979 race, Don­nie Al­li­son (car No. 1) and Cale Yar­bor­ough (car No. 11) col­lided and then brawled. Bobby Al­li­son, who also raced, holds Yar­bor­ough’s foot while his brother Don­nie stands be­hind him.

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