Last week, former Champ car driver Alex Zanardi won two gold medals in handbiking events at the Paralympic Games 2012 in London. His impressive victories (in one race, Zanardi bested the second place finisher by 27 seconds), served as a personal statement of his love of competition and his ability to overcome his terrible accident from 2001 in which he lost both of his legs. His story is an amazing one, showcasing the proverbial indomitable spirit of man and the testament to overcome serious problems. But it is, at the same time, a reminder of the inherent dangers in racing.
Zanardi nearly died in his wreck. The doctor who first attended the scene is rumored to have slipped and fallen when he arrived, thinking he had hit oil from the car, only to discover that is was Zanardi’s blood. Zanardi lost nearly seventy percent of his blood in the crash, along with his legs. That he survived at all is both a wonder of modern medicine and remarkable at the same time. The latest triumph for the two-time CART champion comes just as the IndyCar season is coming to a close. It is also a lingering sign, one that we often ignore or forget.
The IndyCar series is again headed to a high-speed oval, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Any fan of the series will undoubtedly have a bit of unease as this race takes place. IndyCar’s last attempt to hold a championship race at an oval, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, resulted in Dan Wheldon’s death. That day, one that was supposed to be one of celebration and the coronation of a champion, instead turned into one of gloom and cast a pall over the offseason.
And part of that is just racing. It’s unfortunate and frustrating as a fan, but it’s also part of what makes it compelling. These drivers are doing something dangerous and that’s part of the entertainment of the whole thing. No one is wishing for anything bad to happen, but when it does, it’s part of the social contract we all make by agreeing to be spectators. To that end, the well-liked Wheldon posthumously received numerous accolades and a fond remembrance. Does it make his loss any easier to take? Does it make any of this seem to make sense?
What’s portentous about this upcoming race is the history. Thrown off into the recesses of our memories is the fact that Auto Club Speedway has itself been the site of a racing fatality. In the last race of the 1999 season, one to decide the CART championship between Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya, 24-year-old Canadian Greg Moore lost control of his car and slammed into the infield wall and was killed. His death resulted in track improvements to the facility and the requirement of the Head And Neck (HANS) devices for all drivers. But once again, does that make his loss any easier to take? Or do these names just become part of the overall narrative of racing history, and we accept it? It’s hard to tell.
I’m not attempting to add bad voodoo to the season finale. What I’m hoping for is a good clean race that comes down to the final laps and that Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power are able to battle for the big trophy. But it’s hard for me not to think about the past and wonder. Because I remember last year, and the optimism I had, hoping to see Franchitti and Power decide the championship on the track. I remember thinking that the race would be crazy because of the speeds involved. And now what I remember is that awful feeling I had and thinking about the value and reality of racing.
Speeds for the race this weekend are sure to be over 200 mph. Though the track is wide and offers the availability for drivers to take many different lines, that doesn’t make things any simpler for a car that spins out. The race at Texas Motor Speedway, another fast oval, went off earlier this year without any troubling circumstances, so there’s no reason to think that the one at California won’t do the same. But there’s still that ‘what if.’
In truth, that ‘what if’ is there at every track. It’s just tucked away in different spots. And as the cars and tracks get safer, the ‘what if’ gets a little smaller in the rear view mirror. So maybe we can outrace the ‘what if’ this weekend, leaving it in the ethanol vapors.
I’m ultimately forced to remind myself that these drivers deserve all the respect in the world. Sitting inches above the pavement, circling at absurd speeds in close confines with twenty-something other drivers, they are all dancing between controlled chaos and out-of-control whimsy, and the difference separating the two often a fine line between circumstances and luck. It’s difficult to make sense of that, but it also makes me appreciative of their moxie.