Saturday, August 29, 2015

A notion too far

I wouldn't know Paul Newberry of the Associated Press if he clonked me on the head with a paving brick. But I do know this photo here.

It hangs on a narrow scrap of wall above the closet in my den, and I know its dark history like I know the contours of my own flesh. It's from a certain May morning 60 years gone, a black-and-white moment frozen forever and yet not frozen, because beyond it there are terrible things waiting. And so the moment becomes what comes after it, too, an indelible double exposure that makes you want to put your hands up and say "no" and "wait" and "turn back now."

But of course they never do.

Of course the 33 race cars frozen in that moment from Memorial Day of 1955 keep going, through the long sweep of the second turn at Indianapolis and into what awaits. They're on the parade lap, in the photo; shot from behind, all you see are the rear ends of cars and the backs of helmets. Of the men wearing those helmets, there is scarcely a glimpse.

And yet amid all that blank anonymity sits a man named Bill Vukovich, who has little more than an hour to live. Somewhere else are 17 other human beings who will go on from that moment and that day to die in race cars.  The top five finishers that day will all die. Two others besides Vukovich won't survive the summer.

In response -- and in response to the unspeakable tragedy that happens at Le Mans a month later, when a car rockets into the crowd and kills 81 people -- there are widespread cries to abolish motorsports. To make them gone. To declare them too savage for the sensibilities of a world that, against all available evidence, fancies itself civilized.

The cries don't exactly fall on deaf ears. But they fail anyway.

They fail because speed is a narcotic, and it will always draw men (and women) to it. It did so in the 1950s, when violent death reached a critical mass but people kept climbing into race cars anyway.   And it's doing so now, even as IndyCar mourns the passing of a rangy, genial Englishman whose absence diminishes us all.

And who has spurred the familiar refrain that motorsports -- or at least IndyCar racing -- has become too savage to tolerate.

Which brings us back to Paul Newberry.

In the wake of Justin Wilson's death Sunday, he wrote a column this week calling for the end of IndyCar racing, saying its carnage across the last two decades was intolerable.

"Going back to 1996, eight drivers, six fans and one track official have been killed at IndyCar events, either in the current series or its predecessors, the Indy Racing League and CART-Champ Car," Newberry wrote. "One death is too many, but compared to two other major series, Formula One and NASCAR, IndyCar's mortality rate is simply unacceptable."

He has a point, particularly in regard to NASCAR and Formula One. NASCAR hasn't had a death since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001. And since Ayrton Senna died in 1994, Formula One has lost just one driver -- Jules Bianchi, who died in July of head injuries suffered in last year's Japanese Grand Prix.

IndyCar's record is appalling in contrast, and yet so much of it owes to mere chance. When Scott Brayton died at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996, he died not because the car he was driving was inherently unsafe, but because he ran over a piece of debris, cut a tire and was flung into the wall at exactly the right angle for his head to make contact with the concrete. And Wilson's death was an utter, horrific fluke; had he come by a nanosecond sooner or later, or altered his line through the corner by the tiniest fraction, the piece of Sage Karam's nosecone that struck his head would have missed him.

This is not to let IndyCar off the hook. It has spent 20 years trying and largely failing to get out of its own way, with the height of folly coming in 2011, when it staged a race at Las Vegas that never should have been run. The oval there was too tight and the field (34 cars) too large, and it cost Dan Wheldon his life.

Newberry makes the case that IndyCars have become too fast and too dangerous for every oval, but the cars they're running now are not appreciably faster nor more unsafe than the cars they were running 25 or 30 years ago. And yet, prior to 1996, there wasn't the frequency of death and life-changing injury we've seen since.

The sport at least seemed safer then only because it was better run. That's simply the truth of it.

So what do you do about that?

Newberry's suggestion that you replace the Indianapolis 500 with another NASCAR race is absurd, and not just because it would be a financial disaster for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. More than two decades in, NASCAR's yearly visit to the Speedway has become a crashing failure, with the Brickyard 400 playing to half-empty houses. The prospect of another half-empty house on Memorial Day weekend -- particularly in contrast to the annual 250,000-plus the 500 currently draws -- would surely be something IMS would fight to the bitter end.

This is particularly true with the 100th anniversary coming up next May, and because all of this comes against the backdrop of the scintillating racing the 500 has produced in the last 10 years. Five of the greatest races in 500 history have happened in the last nine years; the last two 500s have produced perhaps the two greatest finishes ever.

More to the point, no one has died. No driver has died in the race proper, in fact, since 1973. That makes both NASCAR and Formula One look positively bloodthirsty by comparison.

Yet Newberry wants to abandon the 500 -- the most iconic event in motorsports -- and make it just another failed NASCAR race?

Too many powerful forces would doom that, not the least of which is the sheer weight of history. Replace the 500? You might as well replace the Super Bowl with a bowling tournament or the Kentucky Derby with a quilting bee. Certain events  cut so deeply into their historic channels that altering their courses is as much a fool's errand as altering nature itself.

And, in the case of the 500, an unnecessary one. Suggesting otherwise undercuts Newberry's entire argument, a great deal of which is not necessarily over-reactive.  Getting rid of the entire sport is -- if  for no other reason than, had IndyCar not existed last Sunday, Justin Wilson simply would have been courting fate in some other howling piece of machinery. And perhaps as likely would have found it.

That's simply the sad way of  these things. It is now, in the wake of Justin Wilson's death. And it was on a certain May morning in 1955 -- when a photographer lifted his camera to his eye and froze for all time a moment that was darkened by all that lay beyond.

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