Sunday, October 23, 2011

Death and Modern Day Motorsport

I awoke this morning to sad news. MotoGP rider, Marco Simoncelli died from injuries sustained in a crash at the Malaysian Grand Prix, a week after Indycar champion Dan Wheldon died in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I have followed most forms of motorsport for over 25 years and something that I came to understand as a youngster was that motorsport is a dangerous business. I also recognized that motorsport was far more dangerous in 50's, 60's and 70's and it took racers like Jackie Stewart standing up for safety standards where death in racing was a fact of life. 

My first experience with on-track related death was the passing of NASCAR independent JD McDuffie at Watkins Glen in 1991. Subsequently, I have had the misfortune of having seen the passing of Ayrton Senna, Roland Ratzenberger, Jeff Krosnoff, Greg Moore, Dale Earnhardt and Daijiro Katoh. If these accidents happened in the current motorsports climate, in my opinion they would not have resulted in a fatality. That is an opinion. However, what I can say for certain is that each of these tragedies led to specific safety changes that have saved lives; whether it is better track design, better driver/rider equipment, choosing to race elsewhere or being able to have the open discussion on safety. As a consequence we have been fortunate to see drivers walk away from serious accidents. We saw at this year's 24 Hours of LeMans, Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller cheat death and basically walk away from savage accidents. We saw Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman escape injury after Edwards flew into the catch fencing at Talladega in 2009. We saw David Reutimann and David Ragan escape serious injury after plowing into multiple barriers at Watkins Glen earlier this year.

Safety advancements like improved track design, "soft" walls, head and neck restraints and energy dissipating car construction has left us with a far more safer sport than what was the standard in the 1990's let alone the 1970's. However, it has also left us with a sanitized reality of motorsports. These sorts of improvements have allowed racers to take more risks and in some cases forgo on track ethics. Back in the day drivers used to police themselves and drive with care because someone can get killed. Now the idea of self-policing (particularly in series like NASCAR) is about getting retaliation and evening the score if you have been wronged. In plain English, it means to you wreck someone. Improved safety has allowed this to become part of the show; an expectation of the viewing public and TV executives. It is commonplace to see a series promote the sport through these savage accidents on commercials. TV executives and the series sell you the prospects of injury and death with the prospects of it actually happening being very low. However, I am not looking for blame as the drivers and riders that have the most to lose are apart of that machine. They choose to accept the risks or race in a risky fashion. The recent deaths of Indycar driver Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli are concrete examples of measuring of risk. In the case of Wheldon, do you choose to race in a set of conditions that were a concern? In the case of Simoncelli, a notable and controversially aggressive rider, do you continue to ride on the very edge 24/7?  

As the hours, days and weeks pass there will be many that will analyze and dissect the state of motorsports, past accidents and these accidents. However, when I think about the risks I don't think about why do they do it? I don't think about auto racing being too dangerous and I don't take seriously calls for the banning of it.

Why do we do anything in life? Why do miners go 300 feet underground to dig for rocks? Why do people get a in car and fiddle around with a cell phone instead of drive? Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why do people literally scramble other people's brains for the sake of advancing a leather oblong ball past a white line on the ground? Why people pay to watch others plays games or race around a track?  I would say it is because they choose to. The people that choose to participate are well aware of the risks and have a better incentive than the viewing public to make it to the next day. However, that does not mean they don't receive external pressure to take on more risk, but it still means they are the ones that have a choice to make in the matter. It has been a tragic week for motorsports and my condolences all around. However, there are far more serious life and death matters in the world in which people do not have a choice in the matter.

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