Indycar racing is both beautiful and terrible

indy-cars.jpgThe Indycar series is perhaps the most beautiful and terrible type of racing in North America. Beautiful because the drivers of this series, far more than Europe's F1 pilotos or the guys strapped into their massive NASCAR stock cars, are fearless. They have to be, as they run lap after lap inches from each other's noses, tails or wheels. The finishes in this series are frequently so close that the decimal points separating the drivers are in the thousandths of seconds. Crazy.

But the sport is also terrible when things go wrong, and they do that with some degree of frequency. Take for instance the last lap of the second race in Houston on Sunday the week before last. Things were dicey in several areas of the pack, with positions being contested, but where Dario Franchitti was, nothing much was happening. He could handily have cruised the last half-lap he had to run home to claim his position. Then it happened.

Maybe you saw it. Even if you aren't a racing fan. It was a wreck so violent that it made the first ten minutes of the national news with Brian Williams. There in front of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, worried to death about the Federal government shutting down, was suddenly the image of a spinning, flipping, fence-ripping accident that threw debris into the Texas crowd. It was odd to say the least that it got that kind of coverage on the news, especially since nobody, thank goodness, was killed. So what was up?

Now, I know that Williams is a race fan, and that he particularly, at least at one point in his life, revered Dale Earnhardt. That's why, when Earnhardt died, Williams featured the aftermath at great length on his broadcasts.

But let's examine two facts: Earnhardt was and is as popular as Elvis, while Franchitti is probably barely known to most people except those who remember him as Ashley Judd's former husband. And when Williams was talking about Dale Earnhardt on TV, he was on a cable news network. But with Franchitti's wreck, the discussion was on the nightly network news, and not buried on channel 51 or somewhere even more obscure.

Perhaps this is more remarkable because nobody died in the incident. I'm not suggesting in any way that that would have been a good thing, but let's face it--when that kind of tragedy happens, TV coverage explodes. Think about this: when was the last time you saw an air show featured on national TV news? That's right--when something went terribly wrong.

So it was with Franchitti's wreck. The car flew up into the catch fence, got snagged there for a millisecond, and spun violently back out onto and down the track. It was a lesson in physics not to be missed, and it made a point that can only be made when these cars leave their four wheels--they're essentially flying even while on the ground. It's been said, in fact, that an Indy car could race across your ceiling if you could get it up there, upside down. That's because these cars produce so much aerodynamic downforce that they would stick there without help.

It takes a brave and, a shrink might say, somewhat crazy person to handle this fusion of power and risk. And the very fact that most of us average humans couldn't do that is why we watch.

Maybe that and for the wrecks. In fact, I've often said that one reason that NASCAR has lost some of its popularity over the past half-dozen years is the simple fact that the cars are way, way safer now than they were, for instance, in Earnhardt's day. Maybe that's sick, and in our hearts, none of us who love this pastime really want to see our heroes get hurt. But it's that fact that they could that makes them not-us, and that's why we devote so much time and money to watching what they do.

Don't take that wrong. I've been writing about racing for twenty years, and I've met or watched more than a dozen guys over the years who have subsequently died. Jovy Marcello. Earnhardt. Adam Petty. Scott Brayton. Neil Bonnett. Greg Moore. When Dan Weldon was killed in a foolish and unnecessary wreck at Las Vegas a couple of years ago, I sat down and thought this whole thing through long and hard. Was I going to keep glorifying this brutal pastime by writing articles that featured it?

Ultimately, I decided to do it. Not for the BS reason that racers often give when, after taking a few days off when a competitor dies, they go right back to it the next weekend: "That's what so-and-so would have wanted." (Alternate version: he died doing what he loved.) Rather, I went back to racing because I realized precisely that the fascination of this sport is the risk. The day that racing is as harmless as riding go-karts at your local SpeedZone, then there won't be any point in it at all.

Think of it this way--there's a reason people pay millions of collective dollars to watch boxers like Floyd Mayweather do what they do. Because how he does it is so far from what we could do if they tied the gloves on us. And because he embraces the risk in so doing.

That encapsulates the appeal of Indycar, because in the end, it's not men and women going round and round. It's warriors dancing with death, and therein lies the magic. Does that magic turn black at times? Yes. Do I hope that happens again soon? No, of course not. But the potential of that, the speed and skill and luck and insanity that is open-wheel racing, is what makes the absurdity of going 500 miles in a circle and ending up right where you began worth my attention.

It's worth yours, too. See it for yourself in Fontana on the weekend.

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