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I thought I had my Death of a Racehorse moment tonight ...

Discussion in 'Sports and News' started by Bubbler, Oct 8, 2006.

  1. Bubbler

    Bubbler Well-Known Member

    Anyone who reads my posts knows I love my auto racing, but I'm the first to admit I am a total auto racing snob. F1 is my series of choice.

    But I have an open mind about all forms of racing -- well, except drag racing, which I hate -- so I decided to cover my local dirt track's sprint car event tonight, my first foray into sprint car racing as a writer or fan.

    So I'm taking it when during the semi-feature, all hell broke loose. A relatively well-known driver in sprint circles got loose exiting a turn, tried to correct, but his car failed him and "grabbed" the track, sending his car hurtling into a violent pirouette.

    It did a complete end-over-end airborne turn and pancaked on the surface of the dirt -- a direct hit on the front chassis of the car from at least 15 feet up. There was a brief oil fire, but fortunately, it extinguished itself.

    I watched it all from the small press box on the inside of the track near the start-finish line. This is what I had always dreaded in covering racing -- a potential fatal.

    I knew it was bad too, because the sanctioning body PR guy -- one of those hard-bitten types who has seen it all -- immediately got up and sprinted to the scene.

    Since this was a small track and didn't have the all-encompassing security the "big league" tracks have, I too could go to the scene. So I reluctantly did. Making my way gradually, I told myself I didn't want to interfere with the emergency personnel, but in truth, I didn't want to see anything visceral -- either in the sense of injury or the emotional reaction of onlookers. But I had to swallow my fear and press on.

    I get within five feet of the accident (the car, obliterated out of all recognition, rested near the inside guard rail) and its the kind of sublime scene you take in without really understanding what you're seeing at the time. You can't comprehend the surreal mix of urgency by the emergency workers, who were trying to free the driver from the upside-down car without injuring him further.

    It combined with the been-there, done-that gait of the track workers -- old, permanently oil-smudged hard men who had probably seen 100 wrecks just like this and 100 wrecks that were worse. The kind of guys who literally pulled drivers out of the fire back in the Gentlemen Start Your Coffins days of the 1960s, when cars were essentially gas cans on wheels.

    I wondered how they squared their blank, show-must-go-on visage with what they were feeling inside. Was it emptiness? Repressed regret? Had their well of empathy for these kinds of wrecks dried up into benign indifference? As they dutifully pulled huge chains off of wreckers to clear the stricken car as soon as the driver was out of the it, I didn't know whether to hate the deadened air about them or admire their ability to put up a brave face.

    Meanwhile, the emergency workers were still frantically trying to free the driver from the car. It was hard to tell, but it looked like they cut the uncompromised roll cage to free him. A sad fate for the instrument that saved his life.

    The driver's wife sprinted to the infield from her trailer. Her face was ashen, understandably fearing what she would see. Since I was screened from seeing the driver, I watched her face and let her emotions dictate mine. I was relieved when she showed no sign of horror, no facial expression or reaction that would indicate a gruesome fate for the fallen driver. She was remarkably calm until they finally loaded the driver on to a stretcher. Then, seeing her husband being prepared for the ambulance, she began to sob. Not uncontrollably, more like the sob of someone who does not yet know the fate of the person she's sobbing about.

    Finally, I got my first clean look at the driver. Thank God -- there wasn't any obvious sign of injury. No mangled limbs or blood.

    I slipped into reporter mode and mentally jotted down every last detail I could see, but at the same time, I simultaneously slipped out of reporter mode and began to root for the guy inside my mind. C'mon dammit, show a sign of life! Anything. Please make it through this!

    I looked down, and for a fleeting moment, I saw his hand move ever so slightly. Then he began to move his feet. Thank God. Seeing that sign of life was a massive relief to everyone and a sign that his chances of making were exponentially more likely.

    As they wheeled him off, the ambulance workers failing to negotiate the ruts in the dirt surface, nearly causing them to drop him, he raised his right hand to the crowd. It was a great moment and one I won't soon forget.

    As the track workers righted the car, it looked like a beer can when you fold in half. The front and rear of the car completely smashed out of recognition, engine dangling out of the sides.

    The PR guy said he thought he saw engine pieces on the opposite side of the turn, perilously close to the crowd. He had a pause of recognition. "Been a while since I've seen one like that." Then, as if letting his guard down was a cardinal sin, he silently filed back to the press box.

    (continued) ...
  2. Bubbler

    Bubbler Well-Known Member

    (continued) ...

    After all, the show must go on, right?

    And go on it did. Drivers, announcers and fans seemingly having instant memory loss about the incident. At one point, the announcer exhorted to the crowd what a great night of racing it was. The victory celebration for the main feature was probably no different than a 1,000 other nights.

    I watched it all unfold and did my professional best, but my mind wasn't in it. All I could think about was that a man nearly died for the sake of entertainment. I can't square that, and my first reaction is that I can't accept that.

    But when I began to explore that emotion more deeply, I realized I'm as much a paradox as the fans who pay to see it, the sanctioning body that puts it on and the track that hosts it.

    Not because I'm covering it, though my presence there as a media person -- agent of the fans as we like to say -- has a distant correlation to why these things can happen.

    And it's not because my first reaction was that sprint car racing was too earthy, too bloody, too prone to these kinds of things because the safety features of both tracks and cars and the availability of emergency personnel are all primitive compared to major series like NASCAR and F1. Though I'm fooling myself if I don't think this scene couldn't be repeated in some form at those levels. It has and it well, again and again.

    I'm a hypocrite, though, because I DO accept this, I can tell myself I don't, but I do.

    I've watched several drivers die on television, and its never stopped me from watching it again. I can't shake the thrills that racing provides in the course of a usual, injury-free race, I can't resist the emotional pull that moments like this engender.

    It's indescribable the empathy and admiration you feel for drivers that put it on the line when they go over it. Anyone who was at the 1995 Indianapolis 500, when Stan Fox was brutally injured, knows this, the collective concern for a man who put his life on the line for the sake of your Sunday afternoon out.

    Its crazy and it defies logic. Yet I know I won't shake it. I know -- as quickly as a few minutes from now, I'll shake it off and tell myself everything is cool. In a sense, I'm no better than those corner workers -- hard-bitten to the danger human beings are putting themselves through so they can feed my addiction to a thrill. There's a part of me who hates myself for that.

    It turned out this driver is likely to be some semblance of OK, last report I had was that he was conscious in the hospital undergoing tests, and they didn't think he had any broken bones.

    I'm just glad the angst I have about this didn't have a body count (unintended Heathers reference, sorry). And I also know this is as close as I ever want to come to W.C. Heinz.
  3. TheSportsPredictor

    TheSportsPredictor Well-Known Member

    In the city at the first newspaper I worked at, they had a regatta on the Ohio river every year. These hydroplane boats would come from all over to race.

    Well, one year there was a huge accident where one boat basically ran over the top of another boat and the boat that got run over ended up in the trees on the WVA bank of the river. That boat had no capsule over the cockpit, so basically the driver was smacked on the head by the other boat.

    A rescue team brought the driver back from the other side of the river to the Ohio side, and as it approached, you could see someone performing CPR on the guy and there was enough blood over the guy doing the CPR's shirt to make it look like it was a red shirt. The son of the guy who was racing was sitting on a chair on a dock waiting for his dad to come back across the river. When he saw what was going on, he jumped out of his chair screaming and three or four people had to grab him to stop him from jumping into the river and trying to swim to the boat where his father was.

    The racer was DOA. And I was the only reporter from our newspaper there.

    That was when I knew I didn't want to really do this.
  4. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    I've been in an eerily similar situation, Bubs. Covering short-track pro stock racing a while back, about a year after Earnhardt, and had a "that's racin'" moment where Driver A spun out Driver B early in the race, Driver B got back on the track (0.375-mile paved oval) and followed the guy around for a few laps before tapping him into the concrete wall.

    But this track had a permanent opening in the wall at Turn 4 (where the trailers entered/left the track, where the pace car left the track, where the ambulance and fire engine parked during the races).

    Driver A's car smashed head-on into this opening in the concrete wall.

    It was obvious to me, and veteran observers in the press box, what had happened. (I was the only reporter.) And they were more concerned -- naturally -- with making accomodations to get the driver airlifted to Atlanta asap. I didn't have the luxury of going with the guy to the hospital, so I stayed at the track, tried to talk to Driver B (almost got assaulted by his crew), talked to track officials, did a gamer, plus a sidebar on the crash.

    The driver died overnight.

    That night's story wasn't too tough for me, because all I could report was his condition and hint at the retaliation factor (couldn't say too much without editorializing, and nobody would talk anyway; just reported the events as I saw them.) But the obit was. And the follow-up was. And the funeral service a week later was.

    I'm still not over it. And I can still see Driver B catching up to the guy for three laps -- I was watching only him the whole time after he got back on the track -- and I can see the car going right into that concrete opening. And I can still feel exactly how my stomach sank as soon as I saw him hit the wall.

    I'll never get over it.
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