Monday, October 17, 2011

The Existential Blood-Sport that is IndyCar, Then and Now

The 1964 Indianapolis 500 was a bloodbath. Although "Hell on Earth" is probably more apt a cliche, since here we have the era's great monuments to technological progress and human ingenuity--as well as a placid, mid-American afternoon, and what was at that point the most American of all non-football, non-baseball-related sporting events--consumed by a fireball surreal in its sheer massiveness and destructive scope. Thirty-one of the 33 drivers in the 1964 Indy 500 were American; this was also a period when auto racing served as a proving ground for experimental or even slightly conjectural automotive technology, much of which was actually produced in the United States back in those days. But what are hope and optimism and American-ness compared to the near-Biblical pillar of fire unleashed in only the second lap of the race, a conflagration that claimed the lives of fan favorite Eddie Sachs, as well as Dave Macdonald, one of the most dominant American-born drivers in open-wheel history? It's as if hidden, infernal forces were mocking some collective belief in our, i.e. America's ability to contain them.

Which partly explains what happened next: they actually finished the damn race. After the accident, the race was suspended for the first time in Indianapolis 500 history. Sachs's car was tarped and wheeled into the paddock, where his dead body was pried out of the cockpit. Macdonald died of smoke inhalation a few hours later, but by that point the 500 had already restarted. AJ Foyt won. It couldn't have happened any other way: see paradoxically, auto racing in the 21st century is both a more globalized and more standardized than it has ever been. Chassis, engines and fuel delivery systems are basically identical throughout NASCAR and IndyCar. Indy specifications are fairly strict; a stock car is basically a souped-up version of a typical compact car, and is far less technologically complex than you're typical, circuit-level open-air vehicle. This means that American auto racing is arguably a purer test of driving ability than it used to be. But it also makes it easier to forget what American auto racing used to be--a competition between people courageous enough to drive wildly experimental vehicles at heinously unsafe speeds; a test of individual technological mastery as well as physical and mental endurance, and the only sport where scientists and visionary, forward-thinking engineers and designers could join the athletes in the winners' circle (just check out this picture of the 1963 Indy 500 field. The cars are not identical.) Win on Sunday, sell on Monday, the saying went in the auto industry. Auto racing was the sport of optimism and progress. Reading Sid Collins's impromptu, on-air eulogy for Eddie Sachs during the 1964 Indy 500 radio broadcast, it's obvious why all the fires of Hell (as well as, arguably, basic human decency) couldn't convince race officials to call the thing off:

You heard the announcement from the public address system. There’s not a sound. Men are taking off their hats. People are weeping. There are over 300,000 fans here not moving. Disbelieving.

Some men try to conquer life in a number of ways. These days of our outer space attempts some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death and they calculate their risks. And with talking with them over the years I think we know their inner thoughts in regards to racing. They take it as part of living.

A race driver who leaves this earth mentally when he straps himself into the cockpit to try what for him is the biggest conquest he can make (are) aware of the odds and Eddie Sachs played the odds. He was serious and frivolous. He was fun. He was a wonderful gentleman. He took much needling and he gave much needling. Just as the astronauts do perhaps.

"Some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death. " Today, American racecar drivers are thought of as slick corporate shills or corn-fed good ol' boys. But back then they were like earthbound astronauts, gambling with their lives in the name of an oddly American form of spatial, technological and even metaphysical conquest. Did Collins realize how ironic this formulation was, in light of the hell he'd just witnessed? See the reason contemporary auto racing is so standardized (other than the fact that standardization is a savvy business move for suffering auto producers and cash-strapped racing leagues like IndyCar) is because standardization helps achieve a baseline of on-track safety that simply didn't exist in the 1960s. The MacDonald-Sachs crash was so catastrophic because MacDonald was the only one on the racetrack driving a newly-designed, high-clearance car with an 80-gallon fuel load contained in rubber bladders placed on either side of the cockpit--i.e., he was driving a lightening-fast experimental vehicle laced with potentially-lethal design flaws. Wrecks like this one (both of MacDonald's rubber fuel tanks exploded, as you can see in the video....) hastened the era of standardization in motor sports--after the 1964 race, drivers were forced to pit at least twice per contest, taking away any justification for rolling with humongous and poorly-designed fuel tanks. And it's standardization that robbed drivers of some of that heroic, astronaut-like quality.

So drivers are human beings now. And when Dan Wheldon was killed yesterday, in a crash that was every bit as difficult to watch as the one I've embedded above, the Indy World Championship did not continue. The consensus is that he didn't go out in a blaze of glory, but that this was a senseless, tragic accident, and a horrifying reprise of the sort of incident everyone had hoped the sport had been purged of. Dario Franchitti told ESPN something to the effect that you go out and you race and try to win a championship and then something like that happens and you're reminded that it just isn't worth it, that nothing's that important. In 1964, as Sid Collins put it, "the race continues," metaphorically as well as literally ("we’ll be restarting in just a few moments," Collins told listeners at the end of his eulogy). In 2011, it's just like fuck. Fuck.

Cultural changes are only part of the reason why. Wheldon was one of the 10-15 greatest drivers of his era. He prevailed in arguably the two most memorable Indy 500s of the past 20 years. He played the spoiler in Danica Patrick's coming-out party in 2005--if I remember correctly, Patrick led late but was forced to pit during a crucial final stretch. And the recently-fired Wheldon played the spoiler in this year's race, passing J.R. Hildebrand (his replacement at Panther racing) after the race leader skidded into the wall on the contest's final turn. Wheldon has the distinction of being the only driver to history to win an Indy 500 without leading a single lap. Even then, the accomplishment was slightly marred by the possibility that Wheldon passed Hildebrand during a yellow flag, which would have resulted in caution laps, a restart, and a possible one-lap penalty for Wheldon himself. Wheldon's win wasn't clean, but it was cleaner than say, the travesty that was Helio Castroneves crossing the finish line under a yellow flag in '02. It was also fluky. This isn't to take anything away from Wheldon: when you consider that Will Powers basically blew his shot at this year's Indy series title by clipping a lapped car in a race a couple weeks ago, it's clear that flukyness is intrinsic to auto racing, one of those things that drivers have to cope with and eventually master if they want to race at a championship level.

Wheldon was both the victim and beneficiary of the sport's randomness. He went from champion to unemployed in five short years--only to beat the man who replaced him in one of the wildest finishes in Indy history. And five months later, he died on the track, partly as the result of an accident that Hildebrand had a certain involvement in starting (Hildebrand's car was clipped by another car that swerved out of control while trying to switch lanes on a crowded banked turn. Why drivers were going four-wide at 220 miles per hour on a banked turn, on a nearly-circular track with maybe a few hundred yards of actual straightaway is a question that needs to be answered at some point in the next few months...). There's something old-school, folk-songy, even mythological about the chain of causality spanning Wheldon's inevitably lethal trajectory, something suggesting that auto racing is a kind of existential blood sport, a struggle between randomness and control, or a struggle between the conditions that man imposes upon nature and the sheer senselessness that nature imposes upon all of us--like bullfighting with cars. I'm slightly ashamed to admit that this is, in a sense, why auto racing is compelling, and why I've been an on-again off-again Indy fan since I was 8. Wheldon might have been one of his era's all-time great spoilers. But whether it's propelling a talented driver to victory or taking away his life in a smoldering, 15-car cataclysm, happenstance is a greater spoiler still.

A driver-themed song:

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