Because It’s There

Photo courtesy of Fred Ortlip used under Creative Commons
This past weekend was Memorial Day.

You probably think I’m going to talk about is the whitewashing of the holiday formally known as Decoration Day, and the history of whites co-opting Black Culture in our society.

Well not today.

Today I’m going to talk about something a lot less controversial: Motor racing.

Two of the biggest races in the world take place on Memorial Day:

  • The Greatest Spectacle in Racing: The Indianapolis 500
  • The Grandest Grand Prix of Them All: The Monaco Grand Prix

Those two events are a part of the Triple Crown of Motor Sports. The other event being:

The 24 Hours of Le Mans: The World’s Most Famous Sports Car Race

The only person to ever complete all three is the late Graham Hill.

The thing about Graham Hill that separates him, at least in my mind, from a whole class of successful racers in the late sixties and early seventies known colloquially as “The Quick and the Dead”, is that he did not die racing like so many of his colleagues.

He died in a plane crash.

He was flying the unregistered and uninsured plane in poor weather conditions with an expired pilot’s license and instrument certification, and that tells you just about everything you need to know about the kind of person who wins the Indy 500, the 24 hours of Le Mans, and the Monaco Grand Prix.

That 1960s and 1970s heyday, the golden age of motor racing, is known for its risk and excitement.

A time when sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous.

Nobody liked to see these racers die, but it was part of the landscape.

Go to any car race, even a local track day and look at the waiver the fans are expected to sign.

I have no doubt the first line will be, in all caps:


Because of the quirks in record keeping, it’s hard to tell exactly how dangerous, or say which series within the greater sport is the most dangerous.

Even comparing Formula 1 (the predominant European series) to IndyCar (F1’s American cousin) is hard, because as any motor racing stats nerd will tell you, from 1950 to 1960 the Indy 500 was part of the Formula 1 World Championship.

From the death of Cameron Earl, the first racer to die at the wheel of an F1 car in 1952, until 1980, there were 42 deaths —

That’s 1 death about every 8 months.

From 1980 to today, there have been ten —

That’s one death about every 4 years.

There have been 97 IndyCar fatalities in total, but the motor sport has a history stretching back more than a century. The last two decades of IndyCar have had a total of 4 fatalities. With that said, it still seems to happen all too often.

Even when drivers survive, the danger is still palpable.

In a violent crash at Indianapolis in 2015, a very popular IndyCar driver and Dancing With The Stars runner-up, James Hinchcliffe died.

The doctors lost his pulse, but he was successfully revived after surviving life-saving surgery.

He went back to racing at the start of 2016, claiming pole at the same event the very next year.

This year during qualifying, four-time series champion Sébastian Bourdais had a frighteningly similar wreck, and sustained only minor injuries: Season-ending fracturing of his pelvis and both legs.

A write up on the crash recounted all the safety improvements that came as a result of crashes, some by drivers who weren’t so fortunate, and reminded the readers of the chilling fact that for all the innovations that have made the sport safer, many have come as a result of a fatal accident.

The history of safety improvements in motor racing is written in blood.

So why do I watch?

Why do enough fans pour into Indianapolis Motor Speedway to make it the 60th largest city in the US for one day?

Is it to watch these men die?

No, of course not.

We’re not bloodthirsty monsters.

The Subtitle of the race itself says it all: The Indianapolis 500 : the greatest spectacle in racing.

We watch for the spectacle, and without the danger, there is no spectacle.

JFK famously said of the apollo missions “we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.”

Auto racing is a similar proposition.

The drivers know the risks. They all have friends and heroes who have died at the wheel. They’re as aware — more aware — of the dangers as anyone.

I say it makes them brave.

You may say this makes them stupid.

Maybe it’s both.
Photo by Paul Reynolds on Flickr.

During the Indy 500 this weekend, I watched the kind of crash any long-time racing fan knows too well — the kind where you fear the worst:

A literal shocking, hand-over-mouth crash, where you’re certain beyond any doubt that the driver is dead.

Then he hops out of the car and waves to the fans.

In the twenty years I’ve been watching racing I have also seen four crashes live, in real time, where the driver wasn’t so lucky. I will always remember their names:

Dan Wheldon
Allan Simonsen
Jules Bianchi
Justin Wilson

I can also see the changes these four men’s passing has enacted. I’ve seen the speed and the spectacle increase, while the death rate descended year after year.

I’ve watched the technology that keeps these modern day gladiators safe and fast trickle down into road cars:

  • Safety cells
  • Seat belts
  • Hybrid drive
  • Rear view mirrors
All invented to be fitted first to a race car.

In fact, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built by Carl Fischer for two main reasons:

  1. He believed that European cars were better built and wanted a proving ground to ensure that American made cars were as good as their European counterparts.
  2. He believed that American auto racing was sub-par, because the dirt-ovals of repurposed horse tracks were unsafe for drivers and patrons didn’t get a good show as they could only see the cars go by once.

The speedway was his brainchild, the perfect amalgam of safety and spectacle, a breeding ground for innovation on and off track.

Photo by Maureen Barlin on Flickr.

When someone asked explorer George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest he answered:

“Because it’s there.”

That’s why so many cheat death week in and week out, in 200 mile-an hour modern marvels.

They race because they can.

The audience is alluring, and I don’t know of any top-tear auto-racer who I’d consider impoverished, but that’s not why they do it. They do it because it’s there.

They know the risks, and to them, the act is its own reward. After his near-fatal accident, James Hinchcliffe reportedly asked three questions:

  1. “Where am I?”
  2. “What happened?”
  3. “When can I get back in the car?”

They do it because it’s there, and they’re damn good at it. They have the control and reaction times of fighter pilots, the fitness of Olympic Athletes, and withstand the G-forces of rollercoasters for races that last up to four long hours.

What they do, physically and mentally, is unbelievable.

Bruce McLaren, a race car driver, designer, engineer, and team owner, who later died in a motor racing accident said the following in his eulogy for his friend and teammate Timmy Mayer, who also, tragically, died in a motor racing accident:

“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability.”

So when people ask me why I watch, despite the crashes, the danger, the death lurking around every turn, I bet you can guess what my answer is.

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