It’s all just part of the deal

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Racing

Dan Wheldon died.  That’s the blunt of it.  Another racer gone.

Much like the race did on Sunday following the accident, things should end there.  For the most part things have; way has been made for the flood of touching tributes and remembrances in Dan’s honor, in his family’s honor.  Fellow racers and teams are deep into the process of attempting to make sense of the last 48 hours.  All of that is made easier by the fact that this was the last race on the Indy Racing League schedule, thus giving everyone all the time they need to grieve.

Those closest to the situation – those involved in the series in which a death occurs – have the most difficult grieving process of all (minus obviously the devastated family).  They do so calmly, privately, professionally.  They do so knowing very damn well that it could have happened to them; it still could be them.  It is a very surreal mental and emotional process that many will never understand because they thankfully will never have to go through it.

Growing up involved in the sport, I learned very early on in my 26 years that death is a part of it.  There’s no way around it.  You can make all the safety changes and implementations that you want, but injury and death are going to be mainstays.  It’s by far and away the crappiest part to that way of life.  It’s what differentiates the sport from the majority of all the others.  In the various forms of competition you might head back home with a broken limb.  Yes, you might have a hospital stay tossed in there or, worst yet, your career might be covered with question marks.  But in racing you might not head back home at all.  That is the basis in which the biggest problem of the sport today lies.

At least by my perception anyway.  I have not been involved with racing for over a year now though it will always be running through my blood.  There are many reasons for me making that choice, but a major one is the current lack of respect from the drivers and the fans in regards to situations like these.  Both take way too much for granted.

Many examples are out there, but we will use Sunday since it is still painfully fresh in our minds.  Many are actually going as far as trying to blame the IRL for Dan’s death because they claim the conditions for the race were unsafe.  “Conditions” in this case meaning the speed and number of cars in the field.  Both are brutal arguments.  Both are the basis on which the series was founded.  The IRL has always been a series designed for close, high-speed racing on oval tracks.  Funny how none of these people cried foul throughout the years until now.

It doesn’t matter how many cars are on the track or how fast they are going.  Whether it’s the 34 cars from Sunday or 14.  Whether they’re going the 220 m.p.h. from Sunday or 130.  They are all still going to be in the same pack racing the same distance apart.  Look at that joke of a racing organization NASCAR and their disgusting restrictor plate idea of “racing”.  It doesn’t matter if it’s 43 cars or 20 at 200 m.p.h. or 150 – they’re still going to be beating and banging on each other and having “The Big One”.  Plus, the irony of the field size and speed argument from the fans is that 90% of them wouldn’t even watch if car counts and speed were lower.

So ultimately, in my opinion, it comes down to lack of respect from the drivers.  They take for granted that today’s safety standards are guaranteeing them their mortality.  Back in the good ol’ days of racing (say the post-war years of the 40’s and 50’s up through the 70’s and 80’s) the racers went out knowing damn well that once they left the paddock they may very well not be driving back in.  They raced their competitors with that very same mindset.  Yes there were rivalries and there has always been borderline over aggressive driving, but overall they raced each other like men.  Unlike today’s bogus rivalries where they battle to find out who can spinout and wreck who first.

Today’s generation is losing respect for the sport’s inherent dangers and thus losing respect for each other.  I’m purely shocked that we haven’t had a death as direct result of one competitor intentionally wrecking another.  It happens all of the time and racing is lucky as hell that it has yet to become a factor.  However, at the current rate it won’t be long.

All of this just makes it even more bizarre that the IRL of all series is in the midst of this unnecessary controversy.  Of all the types of racers out there, indy car drivers are some of the best.  To race in open wheel cars at those speeds and that close together takes insane amounts of talent.  Yes, Sunday’s racing incident (that’s right, it was just a racing incident) began with cars bumping wheels.  Yes, the IRL has had some ugly wrecks in the past (Kenny Brack, Davey Hamilton) but overall their racing record is fairly clean.

Four drivers have lost their lives since the series began back in 1996.  I remember all four of those deaths and one major fact about them popped out at me; all the stuff I’ve read, heard about the Wheldon crash has failed to mention it: before Sunday, no IRL driver had ever been killed in a race.

A quick glimpse at the four men we should all always remember: Scott Brayton – after winning the Indy 500 pole yet again – killed in a single car accident in practice before the race.  Tony Renna – also at Indy, this time in a tire test – killed while being the only car on the track in 2003.  Paul Dana – in his rookie season – killed in 2006 at Homestead-Miami during the season opening weekend (his accident involved another vehicle and was in fact on race day, however, it occurred during morning warm-up).  Dan Wheldon – two-time Indy 500 champ and former series champ – first driver killed during a race this past Sunday.

To put it in perspective, the IRL now has 16 seasons under its belt.  Comparing it to its now defunct competitor series CART, the former has a safer record in terms of the races themselves.  From 1982 through its last death in 1999, CART also had four fatalities with three occurring in the final four years of that span (including back-to-back months in ’99) and two of them during races.  Also, CART was not really known for producing the same type of wheel-to-wheel racing that the IRL has given us.

So, with that being thrown out there, my true feelings are that a racer can lose their health and/or life at any given moment while on the track.  People always say they understand the risks, but do they really?  I guess there’s a huge difference between understanding the risks and actually respecting them.  It disgusts me to see how much racers now days show little regard to looking out for one another.  It disgusts me to see how much fans condone those actions and want to see their most hated driver’s car end up in pieces next to the wall.

The overall current mindset within and toward racing needs some adjusting.  Let’s use Dan Wheldon’s memory as the jumping off point.  He was an incredible personality that is a painful void to our sport.  But don’t dare be sad about his loss.  Be more grateful the next time everyone makes it back home safely.



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