Racing in the Right (or Wrong) Direction

This post came about because I happened to see a photograph of a German horse race, similar to the photo below. It reminded me that horses usually gallop around a German race track in a clockwise direction, while in the United States they run counterclockwise. It made me curious about this custom and how the direction of a race can vary from sport to sport or from country to country, or even from place to place in a country. For instance, NASCAR races in America always go counterclockwise around the speedway, but Formula One races in Europe and elsewhere almost always run clockwise.

home straight

Are these horses racing the wrong way? The Hoppegarten Race Track (Rennbahn), Berlin.
PHOTO: Winfried Veil, Flickr

The Roman chariots in the classic film Ben Hur race counterclockwise, and indeed historians agree that this is accurate. They also say everyday Romans probably drove on the left side of the road. Did the Romans set this precedent for modern times, or is something else at play here? (Northern Italy and Rome were left-hand drive until 1925. I was unaware that Austria and some other European countries had drive-on-the-left traffic laws until the 1930s.* I do remember Sweden converting to right-hand drive in 1967.) Do track-and-field events run counterclockwise because of the Greeks and Romans? It’s a definite possibility.

In the course of my investigation into the running direction of German horse racing I learned some interesting trivia, along with some new vocabulary. Did you know that the British say “anti-clockwise” for counterclockwise? Do you know what a left-handed or right-handed race track is? I didn’t, but I do now.

I’ll explain by returning to Germany, where horse racing takes place at a dozen or so tracks across the land. Germany has no single standard for horse racing tracks. The Hoppegarten track near Berlin is a so-called right-handed track (the horses make only right turns as they go around the oval, clockwise course), but horses racing in Munich run on a left-handed track (counterclockwise), making only left turns at each bend of the course. Roughly half of the equestrian race tracks in Germany are left-handed (counterclockwise), while the other half are right-handed (clockwise). The same is true of Australia and Britain, although more tracks there are left-handed than right-handed. There seems to be no particular reason for this, other than the location and terrain. (Not all horse tracks are flat. Some have inclines, and a few even do a figure eight!)

In the United States all race tracks (horses and auto) are counterclockwise (left-handed), although the Belmont Park track was right-handed until 1921. (Man o’ War’s victory at the 1920 Belmont Stakes was run right-handed.) Some people claim that the reason American races are run counterclockwise is that the colonists did not want to copy the British, but a more likely reason, especially for auto racing, is that American drivers are on the left side of the vehicle. In a left-hand bend, centrifugal force pushes the car to the right, which helps protect the driver in a crash, as the right side of the car absorbs most of the impact force.

Cycling and the Coriolis Effect
Most people only notice the Coriolis effect when they watch water go down a drain. The Coriolis force (named for a French civil engineer in 1923) is the result of the earth’s rotation. It makes things rotate right or left, depending on whether you’re in the northern (rightward) or southern (leftward) hemisphere. The Coriolis force affects cyclones and weather patterns, but has very little influence on heavy things like horses and race cars.

But what about bikes? The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) recently decided that beginning in 2015 all indoor (velodrome) cycle races in the southern hemisphere will run in a clockwise direction. The UCI Technical Committee thinks that the current practice of running all velodrome races around the globe in an “anti-clockwise” direction puts southern hemisphere teams at a disadvantage. Australian racers may benefit from the change. Gennie Sheer, a spokesperson for Cycling Australia commented, “As our track team is called the Cyclones, it makes perfect sense that they will now go in the right direction on their home tracks.” If it will truly make any difference has yet to be determined.

But horse racing in Australia remains no different than in Germany or Britain. Tracks in the “land down under” are a mix of clockwise and anti-clockwise. In the states of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia horses race in a counterclockwise direction, while in Queensland and New South Wales they run clockwise.

Nuerburgring 24hr - Audi R8

Horses aren’t the only thing that races in a clockwise direction in Europe. An Audi R8 at the Nürburgring 24 Hours in Germany. PHOTO: Dan Fegent, Flickr

Auto Racing
Many Germans and Europeans are avid fans of Formula One (F1) racing. Popular German F1 race drivers include Michael Schumacher (“Schumi”), Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg, making the sport even more attractive to German fans. Unlike NASCAR drivers in North America, they always race in a clockwise direction. Well, almost always. On a few race courses on the Formula One circuit, mostly outside Europe, the F1 cars run counterclockwise (left-handed). (See this list of Formula One Circuits for more.)

Asking why in most of these situations is like asking why the British and Japanese drive on the left, while Americans, Germans and Chinese (except for Hong Kong and Macau) drive on the right. As with many cultural matters, it is what it is. There may or may not be some good reason for it, but claiming a certain way is right or wrong is pointless. Driving on the left or racing clockwise is just as valid as the opposite. Expats quickly learn that there is always more than one way to do things.

*It seems Napoleon dictated driving on the right in Europe. Countries occupied by or allied to Napoleon – the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and some others – adopted the right-hand rule. Britain, Sweden, Austria-Hungary and Portugal continued or adopted left-hand driving. Successor countries to the Austro-Hungarian Empire later switched to the right. Austria did so in stages: Vorarlberg in 1919, Tirol and the western half of Salzburg in 1930, Carinthia and East Tirol in 1935, Upper Austria, Styria, the eastern half of Salzburg, Lower Austria, and Vienna in 1938 (after the Anschluss).

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