On The Crash …

Let’s start this off by offering condolences to Dan Wheldon and the IndyCar family.

This morning, waking to the Today Show, I found myself dramatically underwhelmed at the interview about the IndyCar Las Vegas crash. But the resulting interview may have been symbolic for what the viewing (and non-viewing) public understand about car racing.

Matt Lauer’s interview style which cuts straight to the skeptical points was somewhat misplaced. The time was also so short I question the value of interviewing two people as Mario Andretti and another racer (it was 7am) were being asked about their thoughts on the crash. Lauer’s question–and style which is very effective when questioning the absurdity of Casey Anthony’s case or Tom Cruise–missed the mark, jumping straight to a conclusion that seemed to suggest banning oval races without questioning the science. In explanation why not, Andretti’s point seemed way too nuanced for the seven (or so) -minute segment.

And if there’s anyone to be believed it is he, perhaps the most accomplished American race car driver, having driven Nascar, F1 and IndyCar. His point offered the contrary: speeds have decreased in the time since his day, led to some degree by technical or physical restriction.

From my perspective, it’s just disappointing for this to have happened. Racing has always had its crashes and deaths. None more notabl than the movie out now about Ayrton Senna whose death formed a bridge between post-modern F1 and the series’ classic period (for my money). Safety standards have increased epically since then.

The advances have done little to assuage some of the problems posed by high-speed banked tracks. Was it 2005 when F1’s ordeal with Michelin’s tires came to a head when Ralf Schumacher crashed hard coming onto the front straight throwing into question the side-load data and effectively leading to a withdrawal of more than half the field.

I remember being asked whether I was disappointed that only two teams (four cars) ran the race. I wasn’t — I watch F1 with the hope that between my thirst for racing there is a buffer that keeps those guys safe, even at the expense of the sport.

By comparison, IndyCar is perhaps the wild west of a racing series in that it’s not Nascar which has a following, nor F1. It is recently finding its footing in a rebuilding of an American open-wheel racing market. And as this recent issue illustrates, sometimes it is done precariously so.

Paired for similarity IndyCar runs about at the speed of the slowest of F1 cars (the last track I’m aware that they both ran was Montreal).

While both can offer excitement in racing, one has to wonder about the safety improvements in light of the accident — I mean large fireballs — feels like an era passed by. It’s how the old Speed Racer cartoons rolled with large crashes and Hollywood billows of smoke. The question that comes to mind for me is what are the safety comparisons like?

For my purposes, I watched Nascar as a toddler and remember making gunning engine sounds as I ran around the house. Fast-forward to now Nascar and oval racing is irrelevant for me (and aren’t too many races?) IndyCar is, at least, a palatable option. I cut my teeth watching by going to, parenthetically Mario Andretti’s home: Nazareth for my first IndyCar race — my first and last oval with a race-fan buddy. That said, interest in ovals have waned for me: the relatively dim view of the track excitement, the high level of danger (especially with open-wheel racing), and as it seems to me (the questionable experience of some of the racers).

The last issue needs an example: I very nearly can’t watch the Indianapolis 500. One year I watched and there had to be a caution every fifteen laps. At the time, I questioned whther the lack of full “seat-time” in the unique series leads to some level of crash thwarting the action quite regularly. I don’t know that things have progressed in such a way as to transcend those issues. With that in mind, I’d really just like for Nascar to be the home of oval-racing.

Perhaps it’s the sheer danger as an attraction of race car driving that makes racing attractive as a sport. I can’t imagine any modern racer who hasn’t absorbed the notion of racing as immersed in danger terrifcally, as it was cast in the movie Grand Prix, with the job of being to transcend that danger and drive well and, of course, to win. Race fans know inevitably death is a part of the sport. The Las Vegas crash, though, left me feeling: “not like that” a seemingly solveable situation.

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2 thoughts on “On The Crash …

  1. Not directly related to the causes of the LV crash, but i have to agree that a major safety issue fro IndyCar in recent years, at ALL tracks, has been the huge gulf in experience and skilll between the top and bottom drivers. Top drivers in the series – Franchitti, Wheldon, Power, could all have run in F1 respectably if they had the same opportunities as say Shumacher, Hamilton, or Vettell. Maybe they wouldn’t win race or championships, but they have the talent and discipline to excel. But some of the drivers at the lower end of IndyCar really belong no higher than in the ALMS GT series, not in powerful, fast open wheelers.

    Anyone interested in learning more about Dan Wheldon should check out the September issue of the classic British magazine, Motorsport for their profile on him. And for interesting perspective on how Wheldon fits (deservedly) among the pantheon of Indy 500 heroes, also pick up the October issue and read the profile of Indy legend Bill Vukovich. Some poignant similarities to the way the two raced, and met their untimely ends in accidents they weren’t really part of but couldn’t avoid.

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