Monday, August 31, 2015

IndyCar's finish: Finding meaning amid the sorrow

Mark Glover’s AutoGlo car reviews also can be seen on the Business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website

Sacramento, California ­ An IndyCar season touched with pain and sorrow concluded on the twisting road course in Sonoma on Sunday.

The race was a spellbinding affair, with now four-time series champion Scott Dixon winning the season finale and snatching the IndyCar series title from Juan Pablo Montoya, who had both arms wrapped around the trophy since the beginning of the season.

Montoya came within one pass on the track – not just on Sunday, but anytime during the 2015 season – from winning the title.  Amazing.

Of course, the race was just part of the story, coming only six days after the death of Justin Wilson, the talented, 37-year-old IndyCar driver who managed to become someone rarely seen in professional sports these days – a man seemingly loved by all.  Wilson never awoke after a freakish crash in IndyCar’s 500-miler at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on Aug. 23.

Wilson was struck in the helmet by a heavy piece of debris from another car that had crashed hard into Pocono’s outside wall.

Those involved in IndyCar racing and those who follow it were emotionally crushed by news of Wilson’s death.  From the fringes came the usual torrent of scorn, with some advocating that high-speed, open-cockpit IndyCar racing be banned.

This is nothing new.  This mating dance has been going on for decades, dating back to the first races held on the freshly built Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than a century ago.

Back in 1959, the January issue of Mechanix Illustrated had this on its cover: “U.S. Senator Says: Auto Racing is Murder!  It Must Be Outlawed.”  This was accompanied by a photo of auto racer Jim Rigsby's front-engine sprinter sailing over the wall at Dayton Speedway in Ohio, a fatal crash that occurred in 1932.  Inside the magazine, U.S. Sen. Richard Neuberger’s screed called for an end to the needless bloodshed of auto racing.

I remember a network news anchor reporting the death of IndyCar racer and two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon after a violent crash on the Las Vegas racing oval back in October 2011.  The anchor suddenly burst out: “What does this mean?”

I’ll tell you what it means.  Any human being strapped into a bullet-like, high-horsepower car capable of 230 miles per hour knows going in that there is a possibility that he or she can be horribly hurt or killed.  All IndyCar drivers, from the rawest rookie to the most savvy veteran, know this.

As violent as professional football is, I would guess that a very small minority of players – and maybe zero – go into a game with the thought, “I could die out there today.”

And this is why those who follow IndyCar racing sit in awe of those who practice it.  It seems impossible for flesh and blood to function with this fearsome knowledge, let alone dice within inches of each other in race after race.  How could anyone do that?  Seems super-human, doesn’t it?

Truth be told, IndyCar fans have a thinner skin than the fans of decades ago, and I mean that in a good way.  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to have two, three or four name drivers killed in crashes during a season.  It was accepted as a hard reality.  But over time, the geniuses of safety made the sport much safer with myriad improvements, including rubberized fuel tanks, energy-deflecting chassis materials and virtually bulletproof cockpits.

I am first to welcome improvements to current IndyCar cockpits that would make it all but impossible for shrapnel or anything else to get into the driver’s “office.”  I hope Wilson’s death does indeed prompt something of the kind.  A cockpit intrusion likewise killed Wheldon in 2011.

But understand this: The men and women who drive IndyCar machines know the score.  They crave safety, and relentlessly advocate for it.  They have no interest in banning the sport.  I would describe IndyCar’s private reaction to the most recent pleadings as quiet ridicule.

There will always be men and women who compete in violent sports to the dismay of rational-thinking people and those who, understandably, do not want to see another single person die in such endeavors.  But that basically discounts ages of human nature and the need of some to test the boundaries of human skill amid deadly serious chaos.

Justin Wilson was one of those people.  He was an incredibly good man.  But he was also a racer.

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