By Paul Blaufuss
I was going to write a nice soft, puffy little piece for my column this week; something about the old days of racing; old cars and old friends and ghosts of racingâ€™s past vs racing present and blah blah blah, or something like that.
But I just canâ€™t do it this week. Not now, and probably not for awhile. The racing world changed for me last week. I am angry. Noâ€¦ more than angry. Pissed off, upset, disappointed, anguished and numb. Those words are all insufficient. I am not sure I can find the words to describe how I feel after last Sundays events at Pocono.
Because no one has learned.
About me: I grew up on open wheel racing. F1, Indy, mods, sprints, supermods. I love it all. The Glen. Indy. Oswego, Lancaster. Canandaigua. Williams Grove. My haunts of racing days long past. To me open wheel has always been the pinnacle of the sport; the ultimate test of man and machine. And so my current perspective pains me deeply. But honesty is often painful.
I do not consider myself a knee jerk reactionary or overly emotional when it comes to racing. I have been around the sport for a long time; 45 years or so. These aging eyes have seen many glorious days. Also many horrible ones. At last count I have been present at races claiming lives of 8 drivers and a number of spectators. That does not include many gut wrenching wrecks resulting in horrible life altering results. Details are not necessary to recount. But trust me, I have seen the worst there is to see, close up: frantic on-track life saving activities. Rush the chopper. Hold the chopper. Black veils around stricken cars. Notify the family. Been there.
I am conservative by nature. I believe generally people should be free to pursue whatever activities they want in life with as little restriction as possible. Only in freedom and exercising our God given free will can we as people completely fulfill our human nature. Racing is dangerous, and open wheel racing tops the danger list by its very definition. Those who participate unquestionably accept the elevated risks associated with their choice of activity. Life however is also a balance; and sometimes those possessing age, experience and wisdom must step in to protect people from themselves.
I have always accepted the traditional racing spin and drank the milk flavored kool aid. â€˜They died doing what they lovedâ€™ the pundits said.â€™ They lived to race.â€™ â€˜They knew racing was danagerous and accepted the risks.â€™ And so I believed. Every spring I worshipped at the Shrine of the Holy Spectacle. I rejoiced when the balloons rose, and felt comfort that we are all called back home again to Indiana.
Except of course those that could not; because they were dead.
I shook off the first death I saw and in time went back to the track. And did so again and again for decades. Sadly each one seemed to make less of an impact. Maybe I am older, maybe wiser. Maybe I am just tired and had enough of the sport I love more than anything destroying people, bodies, and families. I am tired of hearing about what a great person the driver was, how they died doing what they loved, and about his widow and orphaned children, and how he would have wanted next weekâ€™s race to continue.
And I am angry at myself for not having spoken sooner.
I did not know Justin Wilson, but by all accounts he was a find young man. Everyone described him as kind, always with a smile, always helping his youger teammates adapt to Indy racing. He was said to be a wonderful husband and father. A true loss to the racing community, and society in general. And he was said to be a vocal advocate of Indy safety. As was Dan Wheldon before him.
At times like this, everyone becomes an advocate of safety. The 16th Street spin doctors will tell us â€™No expense is spared when it comes to safety.â€™ And â€˜nothing is more imprtant than safetyâ€™ and â€˜The cars are as safe as they can be.â€™ I am already hearing the wreck described as a â€˜freakâ€™ â€˜bizarreâ€™ or â€˜ one in a millionâ€™ incident.
To all this I call bullshit. And this is what has me so upset this week.
IndyCar racing has been in decline since 1996. Crowds and TV ratings dwindle. Watch any race; empty seats outnumber patrons 100 to 1. So what to do? Amp it up. Make the spectacle as â€˜excitingâ€™ as can be. Hype up the ridiculously tight racing, close calls, and weekly flirtation with disaster. Its all fun until someone gets hurt.
Does anyone else see a problem? I sure do.
Let me outline a few of my issues.
Firstly the cars. After the Wheldon fatality, they were said to have been made safer. For my eye, all I can really see changed is the unsightly plastic bits added all over the rear of the cars. Thus increasing downforce and drag. On speedways aerodynamics are drastically altered. The result is inevitable large pack racing. At 220 mph, there is simply no possiblilty for even the best drivers (and these are not the best drivers, but more on that in a minute) to take evasive action. The â€˜big oneâ€™ is guaranteed, sooner or later. And little has been done in the area of cockpit design, in particular the area around the driver helment
Secondly the plastic bits are designed to shred off at the slightest impact, creating excessive amounts of potentially deadly shrapnel each time a car contacts a wall, car or other object. Watch the Wilson wreck again, and take a close look at the volume of debris strewn across the trackâ€¦..
The pack style racing forces ridiculous banzai moves, even early in races. Three wide, four wide, five wide racing. Madness. Unneccessary and ill advised dives into corners are commonplace. Perhaps it is the young generation. Do they perceive races as if they were an X Box game, realizing too late that in real life there is no reset button to make everything and everybody better again? I donâ€™t know.
And the drivers. Honesty hurts. The talent level of the current Indy crop is as low as I have seen in my lifetime. The most naturally talented drivers are no longer drawn to Indy style racing. Of the drivers that are, most come from a road racing background, with limited oval experience, if any. The feeder series today are inadequate or non existant to provide necessary preparation for speedway racing. In my mind, half the field at Pocono did not possess requisite experience, judgment, skill or qualifications necessary for superspeedway conditions. Ill qualified drivers are being placed in cars and on circuits that they are simply not qualified to be racing on. And that is unconscionable.
And now the circuits and sanctioning body. I was present at Charlotte years ago, 30 yards or so away. It was the worst thing I have ever seen in person. And the Las Vegas wreck on TV was the worst wreck I have ever seen in my life. To continue racing these cars, in pack racing, with the present class of drivers, on speedways, is the definition of insanity. Catastrophe is virtually guaranteed. I had a very bad feeling the morning of the Pocono race. I just knew somehting would happen. But I am not clairvoyant. I have that feeling prior to every speedway race. Because sooner or later, it was bound to happen.
There are many smart people in racing. If I can see the madness in this style of racing, then why not the team owners, promoters, track owners? Someone must be accountable. The buck must stop at someoneâ€™s desk. Yet no one seems to have learned anything from the carnage of the last decade. And this is why I am so upset as I write this today.
We live in an age where the sanctity of life seems to be under constant assualt. The nightly news bombards with Middle East terror, money murder, and madness. Theater shootings. Governmental agencies selling aborted body body parts for profit. Safety, responsibility, care of our fellow man, especially the weakest and most impressionable among us, seem lacking in todays world.
The world cries out for inspired leadership.
Human life must matter. Some things must be more important than spectacle..
So what to do, and where to go from here? I have said my piece, and my mind made.
Monday morning as I was leaving my home for work, my neighbor, who also is a many decade open wheel fan, happened to be walking his dog past my home.
â€œWatch the race?â€ he said.
â€œYepâ€ I said.
â€œI am done with Indycar,â€ he said. â€œSeen enough.â€
All I could do in response was nod my head, and answer