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Why race counter-clockwise?
Turning right to go left.  Christian Gorecki photo
Turning right to go left. Christian Gorecki photo
August 1st 2006 - Jim Gorecki
The CJ3 Racing Group
Cedar Falls, Wisconsin

Drive Fast, Turn Left!
By: Jim Gorecki

“Drive fast, turn left”, is a racing phrase that has been around for a while. I saw it on a
T-shirt last week, and as many times as I see it, I always chuckle. The phase sets off a series of questions in my brain, why do we only turn left? I mean, the obvious reason is, you turn right, you get hurt! Unless of course, you are on dirt, and you can actually turn right to go left! OK, now that I have you all confused, why is it that we race counter-clockwise instead of clockwise anyway? At least on ovals, road courses are almost always run clockwise.

What about the ancient Olympic games? They ran races counter-clockwise, maybe it is just a carry over from that. At first thought, I figured it was because we drive on the right side of the road or something. Then I figured it had something to do with our four legged friends, the horse. Horse racing has been around longer than the automobile, so it must have something to do with the inner ear of a racehorse. (Seems logical to me.)

The fact is; most races (be it humans, machines or animals) on a circular or oval track run in a counter-clockwise direction. The exceptions being the Australian version of NASCAR (AUSCAR) and some European horse tracks.
The reason for the counter-clockwise direction for some sport like stock car racing is fairly obvious. Since the driver is on the left side of the car (in this country at least) driving counter-clockwise provides a lot of physical advantages: drivers are shielded from the wall on banked turns, they have better visibility on the left side of the car where most people pass and the position of the driver is conducive to the effect of centrifugal force. Since the boys from down under have the steering wheel on the right side of the car it only makes sense that they would drive clockwise.

In the case of American horse racing the reason has less to do with physics and much more to do with politics. In 1780, the first circular US racetrack was established by William Whitley near his home in Lincoln County, Kentucky. A staunch supporter of the Revolution, Whitley insisted that horses race counter-clockwise, as opposed to clockwise as was the custom at the time in England. While some racetracks were slow to adapt (Belmont racetrack in NY actually ran clockwise until 1921), now all racetracks in the US follow Whitney’s patriotic tradition. God bless America and the Kentucky Derby!

That explains stock car racing and horse racing, but what about all the other forms of racing: track and field, speed skating, cycling, roller derby, dog racing and Ancient Chariot racing? While there does not appear to be any logical reason for the counter-clockwise rotation of these events, there is definitely not a lack of theories.