Racing, Risk, Longevity and Chance

 


This past weekend started our pretty good for yours truly.  I watched the NASCAR Nationwide Series race from Charlotte and F1 qualifying on Friday night, then caught the Las Vegas truck race, the Sprint Cup race, the Monster Energy Cup motocross event and finally the Korean Grand Prix on Saturday.


The plan for Sunday included a trip to Firebird International Raceway for the NHRA Arizona Nationals, then back home to watch the DVR'd  IndyCar finale since I wasn't going to be home for most of the race.


My kind host Jeff had VIP passes which meant all-day access to Firebird's third floor suite  overlooking the launch area, where we could watch the action in air-conditioned comfort including closed-circuit television, complimentary refreshments and a free lunch.


But we knew we wouldn't be spending much time in the suite; we'd be walking the pits between rounds and then, as is our preference, become standing-room-only railbirds to smell the nitro fumes, feel the ground shake and mingle with our fellow race fans when the cars were actually running.


Drag racing is the one motorsports discipline that can't be fully, sensory-overload experienced digitally, so far at least; you simply have to be there -- with earplugs.


After round one of the pro cars, when we visited the tower to sample the surpsingly good track fare and watch the sportsman classes, we had the great pleasure of enjoying the company of two drag racing legends: Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney.  Big Daddy was in our suite with us, eating bbq chicken and ribs with beans and cole slaw and cornbread, just watching each run like any true fan.  Shirley was outside in the courtyard, chatting and laughing with her guests and visitors, looking spectacularly regal.


How cool was that?


We stayed through the second round of the fuel cars and then took off; Jeff had some other obligations and I had to get home to do the scoring for my company's fantasy racing games.


And when I walked through my front door and saw the look on my wife's face I knew my weekend was about to turn sour.  She'd been watching the race and filled me in on the big crash and concern over Dan Wheldon.  Then, a few agonizing minutes later, we watched IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard make the accouncement that Wheldon had died.


I can't really express the sorrow and sadness we both felt when we heard that news.   It was 1994, 1999 and 2001 all over again, when we watched Ayrton Senna, Greg Moore and then Dale Earnhardt die in the process of doing what they loved with full acceptance and clear recognition of all the inherent risks.


 


"To achieve anything in this game you must be prepared to dabble in the boundary of disaster." - Sterling Moss


 


Wikipedia has a depressingly complete list of racing drivers who died in crashes, including the painfully obvious introduction:  'Due to the inherently dangerous nature of auto racing, many individuals, including drivers, crew members, officials and spectators, have been killed in crashes related to the sport, in races, in qualifying, in practice or in private testing sessions. Deaths among racers and spectators were numerous in the early years of racing. However advances in safety technology, and specifications designed by sanctioning bodies to limit speeds, have reduced deaths in recent years.'


It already includes Dan Wheldon's name as the latest fatality in the Indy Racing League (sic) section.


Yes, advances in safety have and are and will continue to be made going forward.


But there will always be risk and there will always be chance and coincidence and perfect storm convergences of seemingly unrelated influences that will result in injury or death.


I keep reading all the tributes, commentaries, opinions and news items related to Wheldon's death and firmly believe positives will come from it.  I completely disagree with the cruel, ignorant cretins who want to crucify or lynch the sanctioning body, the $5 million to win promotion, the size of the field, the track and/or especially Mr. Bernard.


But I'm still trying to put all of this into perspective.


 


"Once you’ve raced, you never forget it…and you never get over it." - Richard Childress


 


Race car drivers are passionate about what they do, just as most of us are passionate about something in our lives.  Performers are addicated to the stage, athletes live to compete in the arena and racers were born to do both; as fast as their racecars will let them in order to finish first.


Racing is their choice and everyone understands the risks vs rewards.  And as I learned from an old sociology professor way back when, concerning negative reinforcement to change behavior, "It's not the severity of the punishment, it's the certainty."


Skydiving is a great example.  Fatalities result from a very small percentage of the total jumps made each year; its almost a certainty the chute will open although there's always a chance of injury on the landing.  But if the chute doesn't open the consequences could not be more severe.   


Comparitively speaking, fatalties in racing are fairly rare so drivers do what they were born to do; they don't worry about the severity of injuries or death from a crash, they're playing the odds because they are compelled to race.


But let's be honest; the chances of bad things happening in IndyCar have been signficantly higher over the past decade than they needed to be.  The high downforce, relatively low horsepower, equal-to-a-fault spec series created the same kind of pack racing on high banked 1.5 mile ovals that NASCAR has marketed so well at the two restrictor plate tracks.


Except open wheel cars aren't supposed to make contact with each other, under any circumstances. Neither are they supposed to run in too-tight-to-escape packs that lead to Big Ones like the Sprint Cup, NNS and Camping World Truck Series races regularly produce at Daytona and Talladega.  Tight, no-room-for-error, two and three wide racing with no separation is the classic recipe for disaster for cars without fenders.


Last night I was commiserating with friends over why IndyCar needs to get rid of flat-out-all-round racing on ovals racing and one buddy couldn't understand why having all the cars equal and tightly packed was a bad idea.   He happens to be a former triathlete so I tried to explain.


One year he ran in the Pat Tillman marathon and fell down because someone in front of him tripped on someone else.  He and half a dozen other runners suffered a few scrapes and bruises.


Every year there's at least one huge multi-rider crash in the Tour de France stage where one cyclist spills and then a whole bunch more riders crash behind him.  Concussions and broken body parts are not uncommon.


When you and the large heavy mass you are driving are going 220 mph, and you're literally inches behind or beside other racecars, and one of them swerves, spins, slows or breaks you have neither the time or space to avoid contact. Disastrous, threat-to-life-and-limb contact.


So count me in as a proponent of the more horsepower/less downforce/next generation Handford device movement.  Let's see IndyCar create a formula where drivers have to lift or brake for turns to allow separation that can only be closed through skill.


 


"If you can leave two black stripes from the exit of one corner to the braking zone of the next, you have enough horsepower." -- Mark Donohue



Mark Donohue died in 1975 from a head injury suffered in a practice crash that also killed a corner worker who was struck by debris.  Both victims knew the risks of their duties.


Yet chance plays such a role in these and all such tragedies.


In 1931 a young 12-year old boy, Wilbur Brink, died when he was struck by a wheel that came off Billy Arnold's Indy 500 racer and bounced over the Brickyard's fence into his front yard, where he was playing. 


What are the chances?


In 1987  Lyle Kurtenbach, 41, of Rothschild, Wisconsin was a spectator at the Indy 500 when Tony Bettenhausen lost a wheel in the third turn.  Roberto Guerrero came along and hit the tire, launching it into the air, over the catchfence and into the top row of grandstand K, killing Kurtenbach instantly.


In February of 2010, at my very own Firebird Raceway, Susan Zimmer, 52 of Rice Lake, Wisconsin was killed after the left rear wheel broke off Antron Brown's dragster during a first-round race against Troy Buff and struck her while she was sitting in a chair in the pits.


In 2009 Felipe Massa suffered a serious head injury when he was struck by a shock absorber that fell off Rubens Barrichello’s car at the Hungarian GP.   The suspension piece was bouncing on the track, across the racing line, and hit the Ferrari driver's helment just above his left eye.


What are the chances?


Ayrton Senna was killed because a suspension piece broke and then pierced his helmet visor when he crashed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.  A few inches difference in the trajectory of that piece and he would have walked away.


I'm reconciling Dan Wheldon's death as the consequences of chance, in full consideration of the racing environment.  Just like how in the recent past I've had to consider the losses of Eric Medlen, Darrell Russell, Paul Dana and others as against-all-odds accidents akin to being struck by lightning or getting all six Powerball numbers.


Don Garlits, 79 and Shirley Muldowny, 71 both retired in 2003 as survivors of some of drag racing's most dangerous decades.  So did Connie Kalitta, now 73 and a retired driver turned team owner who lost his son Scott in a funny car accident in 2008.  What are the chances?


Chance is how Bobby Allison and Richard Petty have lived to be old, retired race car drivers; it's how The King lost his grandson Adam and how the head of the Alabama Gang lost his sons Clifford and Davey.  


It's how Thomas Murphy, vice president of corporate brand marketing for Sprint and the guiding force behind its NASCAR program, was killed when a boulder crashed through the windshield of the vehicle he and his family were driving near Aspen, Colorado in 2009.


What are the chances?  


There's nothing we can do about chance except do everything possible to keep the odds in our favor without sacrificing whatever gives our lives passion and meaning.  Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we've all got to stay in the game.


Godspeed, Dan Wheldon.


 


Tazio Nuvolari (1892 – 1953) was an Italian racer who started out on motorcycles in 1920 and captured a championship in 1925, later winning the 1932 European Championship in Grand Prix motor racing. Dr Ferdinand Porsche called Nuvolari "The greatest driver of the past, the present, and the future."


This was one of the most dangerous eras in the sports history.  A reporter once asked Nuvolari if he thought he might die at the wheel of a racing car and Tazio admitted he might, to which the reporter challenged, "Then how can you get into a racing car if it is likely you will die there?"


 Nuvolari replied back, "Where do you think you will die?" and the reporter said, "Probably in bed."


 And Nuvolari asked him, "Then how can you get into bed every night, when it is likely you will die there?"