In the process of writing this column about Charlotte and the 5th Chase race the unthinkable happened. The world of motorsports lost a champion and a hero. Somehow, the hush from the TV and the change in tone from Eddie Cheever made the reality of the situation very clear. Marty Reid stumbled over his words. The safety workers on the track had that familiar rush and desperation in their movements. I was taken back to a memory that is still too fresh to revisit. Daytona 2001. But this can’t be happening we have made all these changes. We have stepped up safety and safety management. How can we be looking at the same kind of tragedy?
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]In the process of following motorsports our lines tend to blur. We forget different series different rules. We forget that as much as we may complain and moan about NASCAR’s rules and rulings, they are at the very top of the game in safety. But NASCAR is not safe either. 200 mph in a 3600 lb car that hits an unmovable concrete wall safer barrier or not, and hits it at the right angle, hans device or not, and tragedy can and will result.
Many NASCAR fans seem to forget this as they cheer loudly when drivers that are not their favorite wreck or are involved in a wreck. Saturday night was a good example. Jimmie Johnson hit the wall at 189 mph dead head on hard enough to lift the car off the ground. Please note the safer barrier didn’t break. It gave as it is suppose to but it didn’t break. What broke was an extremely well built piece of machinery. Although Jimmie climbed out and walked away, the in car camera told the story far better. He continued to slump in the seat and drop his head. He sat slumped forward in the drivers seat for a short time before letting the net down and climbing from the car. He was dazed and seemed turned around as he was lead to the ambulance. Although he was checked and released from the infield care center, Johnson was pale and shook up when he gave his interview.
The cheers from the stands were gross and tactless. They illustrated not passion for the sport or a driver but ignorance on the part of those who were blind enough not to see how close our sport came to losing a young vibrant champion and hero. After having been there at the loss of too many of my heroes I was sickened and disgusted at the display. How could they not remember Daytona in 2001? How could they not remember New Hampshire in 2000? For God’s sake how could they not remember the waiting for days after Michigan in 1994? The waiting and not knowing for word on Ernie Irvan. How could they possibly behave like this? My answer came from a source that often supplies my answers, because they weren’t there. Because they are too ignorant to understand that these guys can be gone in the blink of an eye. Because many though they claim to be life long fans of the sport were not fans in 2001 or were not old enough to grasp what happened. To them the names Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Steve Irwin and Adam Petty are historical. They weren’t there. They don’t understand the loss of a hero and a champion.
IndyCar fans had been spared the loss of a hero since 2006. Sheltered much like NASCAR fans with the reassurances of the sanctioning body that the cars were safe. The tracks were safe. The drivers and fans were safe. A misconception that NASCAR and IndyCar promoted and encouraged. But it’s still a misconception. A dangerous lulling into complacent behavior and lack of concern on the part of fans and drivers a like.
Drivers who allow their tempers to control their behavior and use a 3600 lb car as a weapon have bought into that complacency. Fans who cheer when a driver hits the wall have bought into that complacency. People regardless of who they are or what form of motorsports they follow who believe that the sport is safe are niave and unfortunately stupid.
NASCAR was fortunate, our champion is sore and bruised but he will race again at Talladega. IndyCar was not so fortunate and they mourn the loss of one of their champions in Dan Wheldon. It is time for those of us who buy tickets and t-shirts to say to our sanctioning bodies lets look at it again. Are we truly doing everything we can do to keep our heroes safe? In NASCAR is a car with no down force and too high of a center of gravity the best we can do? Is the risk at Talladega worth it? If we are going to spend millions of dollars on something shouldn’t it be making the cars race able around other cars? And shouldn’t the drivers be the ones to tell us that the cars are race able since they drive them? IndyCar needs to take responsibility and make conscious decisions about the type of tracks they race on and what does and doesn’t constitute safe race conditions.
It’s much to soon to point fingers and find blame. We may never know who is to blame. In truth it doesn’t matter who is to blame the price is the same. The time is here to give thanks for the good fortune of one young champion and ask for the blessings and love and comfort for the family of another. The time is here to examine our behavior and our actions and ask ourselves, how would I have felt if the out come was different in Charlotte? Allow me to be the source of that answer, It hurts people It hurts like hell.
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Congratulations to Carl Edwards on his NNS win at Charlotte. Even with a wrecked car Carl showed that although Ducks prefer to swim they have wings and can fly.
Congratulations to Ron Hornaday on his 51st win. More and more I am convinced that the Camping World Truck series will be a lesser place without Ron Hornaday on the track.
Congratulations to Matt Kenseth on his victory in the Sprint Cup Series.
It is with a heavy and sad heart that I wish Susie Wheldon and her sons all of the strength and support and love that the world can offer her. Thoughts and prayers are with you.
Also thoughts and prayers and sympathies to the family of Off-road Champion Rick Huseman and his brother Jeff who died in a plane crash this afternoon in Barstow.
At times like these this means perhaps more than I intend for it to mean every week. To all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.