Not Good Enough


It doesn’t seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.


Maybe it’s because it hasn’t been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of ‘Indycar family’ and hope) following Wheldon’s death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn’t want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent “Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt’s third entry” birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering – “what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?”

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine ‘innovative and working future-thought laboratory’ for auto manufacturers as I’d dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

“Duh.” might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people – the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress – working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I’ve written before about the ‘the long dark thread’ woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but “why?” Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it’s always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn’t paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn’t paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I’m of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn’t to say that the current cars aren’t amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren’t sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they’re highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it’s enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I’ll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I’m telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar – I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.


What we have today is simply not good enough.

 
Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.






"…you come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, will leave thinking like an Indycar fan."

So so SOOOO often I get asked by my friends (who aren’t yet Indycar fans) what are seemingly elementary questions about Indycars and the Indy 500. Things like, “Indycar… what exactly is that? Is that like NASCAR?” or, “Whaddya mean by open wheels?” or, “Isn’t the Indy 500 just a big party? You go every year right? (implying that I can’t pass on a big party which, while fairly accurate, in this case is missing the point). 


It forces me into a frame of reference that I haven’t been since roughly the turn of the decade – the 80s decade, that is, when I first began approaching Indycar as a fan.  

I also must resist rapidly morphing into some aghast, codger-like visage of Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase” (a quote from which this post’s title is paraphrased) and try to see Indycar through fresh eyes. My sometimes inquisitive kids also aid in this.


One thing I’ve noted is that we Indycar stalwarts (are there any other kind?) can be perceived as a very insulated, exclusive, micro-focused bunch approaching racing nerddom.  So when I get that seemingly elementary question from an Indycar ‘Outsider’, I must remember that it’s all-new to someone and I will try hard to determine what depth of answer will lose them and develop an answer just short of that, because my goal has always been to maintain their interest in Indycar, no matter how shallow, and provide as informative an answer as possible. 


But also, after years of losing many people with amateur answers that regale the history and intricacies and dramas of Indycar, I have now determined one simple answer seems to to be about the only true and best advice I can give anyone who wants to know more about Indycar: 

“You just have to go see it.” 


It’s still my favorite way (by far) to experience it. TV rarely does the experience justice, the great crew with IMS Radio at the Indy 500 does a great job of communicating the excitement, but when I’m fortunate enough to be present when they fire up the engines, it’s still a goosebump moment… everytime. Anticipation, sights, sounds, smells, vibrations through the ground all culminate in one overwhelming experience and the closer you are, the more amazing it is. 


So do yourself a favor. Go see a race and don’t fail to take a friend who has never seen an Indycar race before. I’ve done it now for 8 years running to the Indy 500 and while, to an Indycar codger like me, it may seem their auto racing brain is full of mush, they also may just leave a fan.