Why are races always run in a counterclockwise direction?

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Dear Cecil: Every race I’ve ever seen on an oval or round track, be it between humans, animals, or autos, is run in a counterclockwise direction. What explains this? I. Cohen, Dallas, Texas

Cecil replies:

How do these things get started? I’ve gotten several letters asking why races are “always” counterclockwise, and I notice my fellow toiler, Omni magazine game czar Scot Morris, has written a lengthy treatise on the subject. Scot came up with the following list of counterclockwise phenomena: the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races, track and field events, Roller Derby, indoor bicycle races, horse races, speed skating, merry-go-rounds and other carnival rides, revolving doors, the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the customary flow of people around an ice-skating rink, the usual direction in which people spin Hula Hoops, the base runners in baseball, cable-operated model airplanes, and tornadoes and hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere.

To be sure, Morris concedes, there are a lot of clockwise phenomena as well: the direction of the pieces on a Monopoly board; the “on,” “higher,” or “tighten” direction on knobs, dials, faucets, light bulbs, screws, and bottle caps; dialing on a rotary telephone; record turntables; and turning a manual can opener, eggbeater, or pencil sharpener. But most of these — at least the ones that involve exertion — are easy to explain: most people are right-handed, and righties have more strength turning clockwise than the other way.

The counterclockwise phenomena are a different story. On the theory that there might be some dark link to our primeval past, Morris asked several distinguished anthropologists, but no luck. He morosely concludes, “the bias toward moving our whole bodies in counterclockwise cycles undoubtedly can be traced back to the right-handedness of our species and of every human society yet discovered, but how the one led to the other is unclear.”

Before we despair, however, we would do well to inquire a bit further. Some of these supposedly counterclockwise phenomena in fact aren’t always counterclockwise. Horse races, for example, are commonly run in a counterclockwise direction in this country, but European tracks are less standardized and “the horses run clockwise on most of them,” one writer notes.

Similarly with auto racing. Oval tracks for stock-car racing are common in the U.S.; they’re counterclockwise because in stock cars the driver is on the left and if he loses control and crashes into a wall the right side will absorb most of the impact. (Presumably it’s also easier for a driver on the left to cut a tight left turn.) In Europe, serpentine grand-prix-type courses are more common, and judging from the photos a good number of them are run in a clockwise direction.

It’s true track events (i.e., foot races) are always run counterclockwise, but that’s because track geometry, direction of travel, etc., are set by international agreement to ensure comparability of times. I could go on, but frankly Roller Derby isn’t my cup of tea, and anyway I’m sure you see my point — counterclockwise travel isn’t the implacable law of nature some make it out to be.

She goes both ways

Dear Cecil:

Your answer to the question on counterclockwise races was a tad off, at least on human races. In 24-hour, 48-hour, 72-hour, and 6-day (human) races on tracks, every so many hours, typically 4-6, the direction is reversed to spare the runners’ knees. Going in the same direction constantly puts a lot of torque on the knees and reversing evens things up.

The longer the race, the more crippled we become anyway, so I hate to imagine how we’d look if this weren’t done. To put it mildly, we walk funny after these events. And hey, I’m not making this up. I’ve done my share (well, not yet) of 24-hour, 48-hour, and 6-day races setting a few American and world records winding and unwinding around the track. I plan to resume racing when I move to Albuquerque in a matter of months. Cheers.

— Myra J. Linden, Key Biscayne, Florida

I was talking about traditional track events, Myra, not endurance contests. But your letter does support my main point, which is that such events aren’t always run in a counterclockwise direction.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.