Feature: Tradition of Success Drives Finns On

Smoke from burning rubber blows over the crowd and the dragsters' engines roar as the drivers spin their wheels.

Feature: Tradition of Success Drives Finns On

Smoke from burning rubber blows over the crowd and the dragsters' engines roar as the drivers spin their wheels.

The lights turn green and the cars screech off. At least one car will crash as drivers risk their lives to hit the finish line, some at well over 300 kilometres per hour. Boyfriends, girlfriends, parents and children watch on. In Finland, a day at the drag racing is a family event.

"Finnish people are crazy about motorsport, whether it is formula, rally or drag racing," said Jarmo Markkanen, editor-in-chief of hot rod magazine V8 and owner of a souped-up 1969 Chevy Nova.

But the Finns are not just spectators. The success of Formula One drivers Mika Hakkinen, Mika Salo and Kimi Raikkonen and rally veterans Marcus Gronholm and Tommi Makinen shows how much Finland punches above its weight in motorsports.

But why should this nation of 5.2 million have such passion for motorsports? The statistics are dazzling. One in every 400 Finns is licensed to drive in competition. There is one motorsports association per 16,000 people and there are 40,000 paid-up members of the governing body.

Despite the countless conversations they have on the issue - in the sauna on long, cold, winter nights or together as some of the 1.8 million who get up at five in the morning to watch the Brazilian Grand Prix - Finns themselves are not sure.

"It is like trying to find out the meaning of life, no-one can tell you. I have spoken about this for around 20 years with different people and no-one has the right answer," said Kari Melart, managing editor at the Iltalehti tabloid.

Favourite Son

Many theories exist - empty distances with rough roads, a coolness that draws Finns to solo sports, high car prices that encourage maintenance or 'sisu', a gritty Finnish quality - but at heart is a winning tradition that fires up each generation.

"Success feeds success. So when you have a world champion all the little children want to be Tommi Makinen or Mika Hakkinen," said Jarmo Mahonen, managing director of Finland's governing body AKK-Motorsport.

When Iceman Hakkinen took his first Formula One title in 1998 his pedigree could be traced back through manager Keke Rosberg, who 16 years earlier became the first Finn to take the Championship.

Hakkinen's win catapulted him to favourite son status and stoked the fires at home for Formula One, both for the person on the street and up-and-coming drivers as the sport came out of the shadow of rally where Finns had found success for decades.

Now Finns are looking to Raikkonen to extend the honour roll. Just 22, he is ranked sixth in this year's Formula One World Championship after the Italian Grand Prix earlier this month, with two races left this season.

The 20-year-old Heikki Kovalainen is making a name for himself in Formula Three, Marcus Gronholm leads the 2002 rally championship and two other Finns sit in the top 10 ahead of this weekend's San Remo rally.

Fine Shape

Finnish motorsports are in rude health. Success in the top competitions has boosted the national talent level while knowledge, cars and ideas have been brought from the United States to give the country quality tracks, facilities and events.

At the Keimola track on the outskirts of Helsinki - where Hakkinen won a regional karting championship in 1978 - a group of six- to eight-year-olds zoom along at more than 70 km/h. Their cars are tiny but this can be serious stuff. Sometimes too serious, Mahonen said.

"That's also a problem," he said. "For example Kimi Raikkonen went so quickly into Formula One that now if parents are buying a kart for their children they are at the same time making reservations for Monaco."

At Keimola with his father, 10-year-old Pontus Huttunen has been competing for a year and drives some 400 kms a week. He says right now it is really fun to drive but looking forward he betrays no small amount of professionalism.

"It is one level to another level. I am not thinking about Formula One yet."

They could be identical thoughts to those once had by the six-year-old Hakkinen when he got into his first go-kart, bought from rally driver Henri Toivonen, and roared off down the track.

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