What’s Right and What’s Left?


Doing laps on my bike around the path at the town park last night, I realized I was going the wrong way. I had begun my workout moving clockwise around the loop, but quickly reversed direction when I noticed people walking at me.

It got me thinking about why runners and horses and NASCAR drivers race counterclockwise around the track.

In auto racing, of course, it’s wise to keep the drivers away from the walls on the outside of the oval. Maybe that’s why NASCAR’S Australian version (AUSCAR) runs the opposite way; because the steering wheels and the drivers sit on the right side of the car.

Horse racing in other countries is a clockwise endeavor. It got flipped in the United States following the American Revolution. In 1780, a Kentuckian named William Whitley insisted that horses race opposite to the clockwise custom in England. Anything to rebel against the Empire.

It must have really busted the Brits’ stones at the time:

“I say, Reginald, can you believe what those despicable Colonials are up to now?”

“Yes, Rupert, letting horses run anti-clockwise?!? Balderdash!”

“Next thing you know, they’ll be trying to invent a machine that flies!”

“Rubbish! More tea?”

In human racing, it’s not exactly clear how we settled on the current format of left-hand turns around the track. One theory holds that it’s easier on the eyes of the spectators, most of whom are accustomed to reading in a left to right fashion.

I see no reason why we can’t switch things up. I swear my body felt more balanced after a week’s vacation years ago in Jamaica, driving on the other side of the car and the road, and shifting with my left arm instead of my right. As a baseball switch-hitter in my youth, I found I was able to make better contact left-handed (maybe due to my dominant right eye being closer to the ball), but I had more power from my natural right side.

I’m always advocating for balance, trying to convince my wife that switching our sleeping positions in bed would be wise. She won’t hear of it, but I think she needs to see the light. After all, she’s a Democrat, but she sleeps on the right! 

Aside from the benefits of balance, It does strike me that we might also be missing out on some variety and excitement when it comes to switching the direction of races:

Why not have a special Olympic running event in which the field of competitors is split in half and forced to race in opposite directions? Imagine the excitement at the end of a 1,500 meters, say, when the runners are converging toward the finish line and each other! It would be like a game of Track & Field Chicken. The winner gets a gold medal. The losers get removed on a stretcher.

We do not recommend trying this approach in the javelin toss.

Dave Coombs is a longtime morning radio host, who is always right.



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