A Study in Racing Heritage

May 28, 2019

Graduate student Felipe Tobar assesses Ayrton Senna’s international legacy

When Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM) graduate student Felipe Tobar was five years old, Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One championship winning driver and national hero, died while racing in the San Marino Grand Prix.

Even at that early age, Felipe understood the sense of loss to his country and the racing community. “Brazilian media covered Senna’s death and memorial for several days,” he says. “We were a nation in mourning.”

Photo of a crowd at the Ayrton Senna memorial event on May 1, 2019.

Thousands of people attended the celebration of Ayrton Senna’s life in São Paulo on May 1, 2019.

May 1 marked the 25th anniversary of Senna’s death. The Senna Institute, a foundation led by the driver’s family, organized a celebration of his life and legacy in São Paulo, including 5K and 10K races around the race track where he’d won the Grand Prix, memorabilia displays, and other activities. The event celebrated his life and international legacy.

Although a Brazilian and lifelong Senna fan himself, Felipe says the commemoration ceremonies are of particular interest to him from a research perspective.

“When we consider heritage, particularly when commemorating an international national sport hero, we look at how the past informs, and is reinterpreted by, the present,” says Felipe. “I am eager to know how they are using the legacy of Senna to tell the history of this driver and his importance, and the effects of nostalgia on his legacy over time.”

Felipe is assessing media coverage of the event, both local and international, and how the Senna Institute chose to frame the commemoration activities. He finds it of particular interest, for example, that the commemoration events focused on celebrating his life and legacy, instead of his death.

As the event is also organized by the Senna family for Senna fans, Felipe is paying close attention to how Brazil’s government and racing confederation, and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) which governs the Formula One, choose to recognize the celebration, if at all.

“Senna is such an important figure in Brazil. He has streets, public schools and a main road named after him in São Paulo alone,” says Felipe. “It is interesting to me that there is no tangible official presence in the lead up to the event. I am also measuring if, and how, that changed over the course of the event and the discourse that followed.”

Felipe Tobar on the Senna curve during his 5K run.

Felipe on the Senna curve during his 5K run around the track inSão Paulo where Senna won a formula one championship.

Felipe also participated in some nostalgia of his own, as he ran in the 5K race around the track where Senna won a formula one championship, and which contains a curve named for the driver. When runners crossed the finish line, they were serenaded by people on the sidelines singing the song that played every time Senna won a race.

Felipe’s Doctoral Program Committee Chair, PRTM Associate Professor Dr. Gregory Ramshaw, is also interested in the official and unofficial conversations surrounding the event. “Most forms of sport-themed heritage are about celebration – for example, celebrating a remarkable sporting achievement or championship. It is somewhat rare for sport heritage to deal with death, disaster, and tragedy. Senna’s untimely death at San Morino was particularly tragic for Brazilians – and not just for fans of motor sport – though, perhaps as the years have passed, the memories of Senna are not about his death, but about his achievements in life and his role as a cultural icon for the country.”

Ramshaw is working with Felipe to compare the memorialization of Senna with that of another Formula One champion, Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve, who died at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.

“In some ways, the memory of Senna lives on, particularly through events like that in São Paulo, as well as through attaching Senna’s name to numerous commercial products – everything from souvenir t-shirts to high-end sports cars,” says Ramshaw. “Villeneuve is not remembered in the same way, even in his home country.”

Ramshaw notes that, like Senna, Villeneuve is still memorialized in different locations, such as in his home province of Quebec, as well as at the Zolder racing circuit in Belgium where he died. However, unlike Senna, Villeneuve appears to be more a part of the sport’s past than its present.

Photo of Senna memorabilia, which was an important part of the celebration.

Senna memorabilia was an important part of the celebration.

“Senna might still be one of the most popular Formula One drivers in the world, and he’s been dead for twenty-five years. That really speaks to his cultural importance and legacy.”

Felipe agrees. “Senna’s legacy is particularly interesting to me, not just because of where I’m from, but because it is a valuable case study in sport heritage and nostalgia, and how it can connect us to a collective identity,” says Felipe. “Our nostalgia for Senna, and the golden age of Brazilian auto racing, is a way for Brazilians, and Senna’s international fans, to use our memories to create connections with people that we don’t even know. Senna is an important part of Brazilian patriotism, our national and cultural identity.”