Sunday’s race in Las Vegas was sad, but spectacular. Sad because a popular driver, gentleman, husband and father, Dan Wheldon, is now part of eternity; Spectacular because the crash that took his life and injured 3 others was absolutely arresting–better than Hollywood’s best CGI programmers could conceptualize as boom and in-car cameras captured every gory detail of flaming parts flying everywhere, and a man’s last split seconds of life.
Motor racing as a whole has been the victim of a major downturn in the last 15-20 years. Many aspects can be blamed such as the devastating split between Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who formed the Indy Racing League (IRL); sponsorship dollars drying up; a trend towards losing uniqueness of the cars as chassis, tire makers and engine builders become singular and exclusive to each series; and a “corporate” influence that has all but removed the colorful personality of the drivers who spew out sponsor names in rapid fire during any given interview.
In my opinion, those are all factors, but the biggest contribution to the downturn has been safety. Ernest Hemmingway once said, “Bull Fighting, Mountain Climbing and Motor Racing are real sports, everything else is just a game.” In the famed expatriate novelist’s statement speaks to the level of risk. But motor racing in recent years has lost that edge in that even the most horrific accidents result in the driver climbing out of the remains of the cockpit and walking away–sometimes more angry than grateful.
Some recent examples: Robert Kubica, driving for Sauber/BMW in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix got it all wrong coming from one of the fastest parts of the circuit to downshift and brake for a hairpin. The car got away from him and hit a concrete barrier head on and barrel rolled another 200 yards, spewing carbon fiber shards and mechanicals to a smoldering heap, upside down into the entrance of the hairpin. While he didn’t walk away, he only sustained minor injuries and was back in his race car two grand Prix later.
IN 2006, Katherine Legge, lost the rear wing of her champ car entering the 200+ MPH “kink” at Elkhart Lake’s Road America resulting in a huge crash against the barriers and catch-fencing and barrel rolling to a stop a few hundred yards away. Before doing a gigantic network morning show press tour on Monday morning, she walked away and complained that the bruising on her legs would force her to wear slacks instead of a skirt for the banquet that night.
The point is this: in what was once a blood sport, there is now an almost clinical sterility and when anything happens, with the improvements in the driver “tubs”, energy absorbing bodywork and barriers, required HANS devices, upgraded Helmets and strong seatbelts, the chances of a serious injury or fatality has been almost made an anomaly. It is easy to predict that when a high-profile fatality, Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR, Ayrton Senna in F1, the press has a field day. Why? Not that they really care about these sweeping changes they preach (I cannot say I have ever seen Wolf Blitzer at a race), but to show the carnage over and over, analyzing every inch of the moment for a blood-thirsty public that cause tremendous traffic jams to “gape” at accidents on the freeway.
George Carlin once said, “If I go to a race, I want to see the pits explode!”
Historically, media coverage has been just as graphic, if not more. In 1971, Jochen Ridnt, driving for Lotus in Formula One, took to the track at Monza in Italy for practice. The last corner of the famed, high speed track, which to the present day still hold records for the fastest average speeds for a Grand Prix, is called the Parabolica. Something on the car broke, most likely a suspension part, and Ridnt careened left into the guard rail. Because seat belts were still an option in that day, he was only wearing shoulder harnesses. The force of the accident forced his body to “Submarine” or crumple into the footwell of the already very tight cockpit. When the car came to a rest, his mangled feet, connected to his lifeless body, protruded from the front of the car that had been ripped clean away in the accident.
With an immense points lead for the season, Jochen Rindt became Formula One’s only posthumous World Driving Champion. Newspapers splashed their front pages with the sickening photos of Rindt’s legs hanging from the car–and even added red to the black and white photos to show blood.
In an age when a racing driver had a 35-40% chance of surviving his career, Jackie Stewart, a three time Formula One World Champion, in the most dangerous era of the series, almost single-handedly began the momentum for many of the safety measures we see in modern times. To this day, he remains haunted by the deaths of close friend and fellow Scotsman Jimmy Clark and Tyrrell teammate Francois Cevert. During the earlier years of his safety crusade, which was actually spawned from an accident he had in 1966 at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium, where his car was upside down, he was pinned and gasoline was leaking all over him, he took a great deal of criticism as many of the drivers were more daredevil spirited–and relished in shaking their fist in the face of the grim reaper; and promoters, who attracted immense crowds to witness the death-defying man vs. man. vs machine events.
Death is something we all share. We all have the same destiny, no matter our race, creed or social standing. It is the foundation of religion, a fascination with the supernatural, a subject that sells newspapers and gets millions of hits on the internet. When a person dies spectacularly and publicly, we can’t help but look. The media is glad to show it to us over and over again, ala the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Racing remains dangerous. On any given weekend, due to lack of the high-tech safety measures, amateur and club racers still are killed far more often than their big-league counterparts. Because there are few spectators and almost no cameras for those type of events, you rarely hear about it. Sadly, in my opinion the removal of death to just a few remote incidents in high-profile racing series’ such as NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and LeMans Sports Car Racing has saved a few lives on the track, but only to the detriment of ticket sales.