Monday, August 24, 2015

The eternal issue

At last report, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson lay in a coma today in a Pennsylvania hospital, the victim of an occurrence no one ever wants to see but understands is part of the deal when you make your living by courting dying.

Every man or woman who climbs into an IndyCar and punches holes in the air at 220 mph knows what the worst-case outcome of that can be. And so yesterday at Pocono a driver named Sage Karam hit the wall and sprayed large pieces of his car into the sky, and one of them came down on Justin Wilson's head. He was airlifted out with what was described as a severe head injury, and nothing about any of it sounded very good.

It's the second head injury suffered by an IndyCar driver in 15 months -- James Hinchcliffe was hit in the head by debris at the first Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May of 2014 and suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the Indy 500 -- and another occasion to raise the issue of safety in a sport that is in most respects antithetical to it. But while you can't keep chaos out of a sport whose selling point is chaos, you can take steps to at least make it less appealing to those with a death wish.

Motorsports drivers have always been accused of having the latter, but that's a myth cultivated by the uninformed. No one in the sport ever wants to see anyone die, or wind up in critical condition in the hospital. That's especially true in this case, because Wilson, a congenial Brit out of Sheffield, England,  is by all measures an extremely popular figure in the paddock -- and one who, ironically, consistently has been one of the sport's biggest advocates on safety issues.

Which brings us to what his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay said yesterday in a somber Victory Lane.

""Maybe in the future we can work toward something that resembles a canopy," Hunter-Reay said. "Something that can give us a little bit of protection and still keep the tradition of the sport. Just to be [an] innocent bystander like that and get hit in the head with a nose cone is a scary thought."

True. And I can hear the old-schoolers warming up already, scoffing at Hunter-Reay by pointing out that motorsports is supposed to be scary. And so enough about trying to make the sport safe, because it can never be safe. In some twisted away, after all, that is a major part of its appeal.

I'm not buying that. I've been either watching or covering motorsports for more than 50 years, and its tragedies to me have never been anything more than tragedies. Watching footage of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald burn to death at Indy in 1964 did not make me love motorsports more. Ditto watching, on ABC's Wide World of Sports, the same thing happen to Lorenzo Bandini at Monaco in 1967.

What possible boost did the sport get from Ayrton Senna dying in Italy in '94? Or Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001? Or Dan Wheldon in Vegas in 2011?

If all those didn't make you halfway sick to your stomach, you're no one I want to spend any time around. And your notion that instilling measures to minimize those occurrences somehow dilutes the sport is simply ridiculous.

Motorsports is better because of the HANS device and the SAFER barrier, both of which were developed in response to tragedies. Undoubtedly, IndyCar will respond to Wilson's accident with some other new development.

I'm not sure a canopy, or a half-canopy, will be their answer. It fundamentally changes the entire nature of IndyCar racing, for one thing. And, if struck right, I could easily argue that the canopy would just create more potentially life-threatening debris.

But if it happens, it happens. I'll adjust. The sport will adjust. It will, after all, still be about punching holes in the air at 220 mph. And if the vehicles doing the punching don't look like they used to ... well, I don't see anyone out there driving the Marmon Wasp anymore. Or a front-engine Offy roadster, for that matter.

It's motorsports, after all. Change is and has always been one of its fundamentals.

Today, as Justin Wilson lies in a coma in a Pennsylvania hospital, tell me that's not a good thing.

Update: Wilson, 37, died Monday evening of his injuries. He is the first IndyCar driver to die in an on-track incident since Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas in 2011, and the fourth since 2003. Tony Renna was killed in testing at Indianapolis in October 2003 and Paul Dana lost his life in a practice crash at Homestead, Fla., in March 2006.  Said ESPN's Eddie Cheever of Wilson:  "He was probably the favorite driver of all the drivers. He managed to be aggressive on the track but at the same time very fair. He leaves behind a very big legacy as to how a race car driver should act on and off the racetrack."


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