Death in Motorsports

Death in Motorsports

I’ve been following pretty much all forms of motor sport since I learned to read. In other words…a long time. Early exposure to Road and Track and other magazines, the novels of Henry Gregor Felsen (remember those?), and countless book adventures turned me into a car and motorcycle enthusiast. Even the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, which are vastly superior to the movies, featured all manner of modified sports machines of the day, as Fleming was quite the knowledgeable enthusiast. All of this was cemented when my brothers and I went in thirds on an 8” black and white TV set – well used – for $25. Mom kicked in the missing penny. On this set I could view the early years of “Wide World of Sports,” which occasionally covered motor racing, at least. Even better, on Saturday nights there was a local broadcast of roundy round races at Shakopee Raceway outside of Minneapolis. I realize now that the Shakopee race telecasts had to be a labor of love for someone at the station, as there is no way they could have been profitable. In high school early copies of Cycle World magazine were passed back and forth among the knowing like exotic contraband.

In all of this I became used to reading of the death of one or another of my heroes. Not so much at Shakopee, which I think is one of the many reasons I Ioved the shows. Nobody gets hurt much, far less killed, at your local “bullring” of motorsports.

But internationally, the death of a major rider or driver was an all too frequent occurrence. My father took me to a closed circuit telecast of the Indy 500 of 1965 in a big theater in downtown Minneapolis – and the horrendous pile-up on the first lap, with massive injuries to many, was not fun to watch.

I’ve never subscribed to the theory that spectators watch motorsports for the “thrill” of seeing someone killed or injured. Questions do abound concerning the mental state of the people who create such theories.

Spectators do like spectacle (the words juxtapose comfortably), and whether the spectacle is 33 Indy cars at the starters flag, the freight train that is NASCAR racers in a pack at 180mph, or a super slow motion replay of a Moto GP motorcycle drifting a corner on a wet track – it’s all good and all thrilling. The occasional crash is exciting too, but death and injury could be absent for all time and not be missed.

Over the decades our societal concepts of risk and death have morphed quite radically. If you want to research, look up the names of the Formula 1 drivers of say, 1958, and research their whereabouts ten years later. A sobering number died. This was, of course, well known to the drivers at the time. Some of them made it a practice to not become too friendly with another racer, to make the inevitable grieving (for one of them) easier.

Closer to our time, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a NASCAR race a decade or so ago at Daytona, the hue and cry was immense, and a near lynch mob mentality of hatred directed at Bill Simpson, whose company was the purveyor of safety harnesses to NASCAR.

Today it is remarkable that there are so few deaths, when you consider the magnitudes of change in top speed, acceleration, braking, and traction. A modern 600cc sport bike, with lights and mirrors, turn signals and a license plate, could waste the lap times of the best GP bikes of the 50s if transported back in time.

The only place I can think of in our modern world where racing brings an excruciatingly common fatal incident is the Isle of Man. There the enjoyment on TV is watching motorcycles and side cars stream through tiny villages at speeds that look like a video game speeded up. The Isle of Man TT survives as an anachronism that is also the mainstay of the economy of the island. GP motorcycle racers ceased to compete there decades ago, but some of the racers now put in parade laps for adoring fans. At first this seems callous, as in “my life is too valuable to risk but I am happy to watch you put yours on the line,” but on reflection it is no different from me. I would love to attend as a spectator, but would not dream of racing. I have an Isle of Man coin given to me as a gift from a competitor a decade ago, and tradition has it that if you are given such a coin you will visit the island. I hope that tradition holds true. Still, the ugly fact is that the Isle of Man races have cost an average of one racer life per year – for a century. That is a hard fact to reconcile even with the racers’ steely resolve to continue with it because they love the challenge. It is the challenge of a 37 mile lap on public roads that is the draw, not the risk of death. Modern technology means the lap speeds are now 20 to 30 miles an hour past the once mythical “100 mph lap,” and yet overall the races are safer.

Advances in technology are not cheap, and most race organizations have spent freely to improve the odds for the men and (now) women who sell the tickets. So much so that the death of a top line racer, once a virtually weekly occurrence, is now so rare as to leave the crowd stunned, saddened, and puzzled, How could this happen?

The past two weeks have been a harsh anomaly, with first two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Weldon killed in a multi-car crash at Las Vegas, and this past Sunday Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli losing his life in a crash at Seeping. Already there is talk of eliminating the Las Vegas track as a venue for Indy cars, and this week there is sure to be a lot of questions directed at the makers of Simoncelli’s helmet, which evidently came off in the crash. I believe the helmet was an AGV (don’t quote me) but it does not really matter. A helmet should never come off in a crash, and questions will be asked and video analyzed until an answer is secured. Did he not have the chin strap done up for some reason?

A minor irk is that these accidents will be referred to as “tragedies.” The root of the word “tragedy” is ‘tragus,’ a Greek word meaning “goat.” A live goat was the first prize in the Greek play writing contests, and one critical element in a tragedy is that the protagonist must, inadvertently, bring about his own doom. Macbeth is a tragedy. Bill Clinton throwing away what could have been the most accomplished Presidency in American history is a tragedy. What happened to these two racers were accidents.

It brings sorrow to contemplate their ages: 33 and 24. Added together they are younger than I am. What joys and sorrows have I been fortunate to experience in the 40 and 31 years difference in our ages! I grieve for them, and for their families and loved ones.

Racing is a compelling, intoxicating, and vibrant undertaking. Racing thrills competitor and spectator alike, and has led to most of the advances we so take for granted in the cars and motorcycles we operate every day.

It is also dangerous. Very dangerous. Better track design and better helmet materials and construction may be the legacy in part, of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli, but that is scant comfort.

On the other hand, trying to eliminate danger from our lives is certainly a fool’s errand as well, so some experience of danger not only enhances life but can teach great lessons.

I just wish the price exacted at times was not so painfully high.

Copyright 2011 David Preston

About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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