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Death at the Track

August 24th, 2015 · 1 Comment · Motor racing

I have written more than once that only two sports accept death as a part of doing business:

Boxing and motor racing.

Racing lost another competitor today, when Englishman Justin Wilson succumbed to head injuries suffered when hit by debris yesterday during an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway.

That led to a melancholy conversation, over here in Abu Dhabi, with a co-worker about covering IndyCar races at which someone died.

He was at Homestead in 2006 when Paul Dana was killed in a huge crash during qualifying. I was at Fontana in 1999 when Greg Moore died after his car slammed into a wall during the Sunday race.

And as you do, when discussing those moments, you realize you have specific — but often odd and perhaps not even coherent — memories of the event.

My colleague recalled an episode, after the Homestead crash, where journalists were asked to stay away from Dana’s family, that they would not have a statement. But a competing reporter ignored the request and went to the church and found Dana’s family. A day or two after the race, of course.

As for the wreck, no one seemed quite sure why it happened. One account of it has Dana’s spotter making a snap call — and getting it wrong … telling Dana to “go low” on the track and leading to him plowing into Ed Carpenter’s car at shockingly high speed, as Carpenter sat nearly motionless after spinning and hitting the wall and sliding down almost to the track apron.

Others, my colleague said as he looked into the middle distance, thought it happened because the race had not “gone yellow” quickly enough. Or that Dana was going too fast with a wreck out in front of him. His wiki entry suggests he had hit debris of Carpenter’s car and was unable to control it in the moments before the crash.

As for Moore, in 1999, his wreck was so violent that I think everyone who saw it knew he could not have survived. No doubt at all, even among those who were looking for any doubt to hold onto.

As the ultra-slow-motion video linked, above, shows, he was still going at a high rate of speed and his car had flipped as it struck the barrier and disintegrated.

How he came to lose control is a topic of conjecture, in part because no camera seemed to be on him. But after he lost control, his car left the track at a spot where a large patch of grass had been planted, and the grass presented almost no friction for the sliding car, which was why it was going so fast when it hit the wall near infield campers.

The grass was later removed.

After it happened, I left the press center in the infield and began keeping a minute-by-minute diary of everything I learned about Greg Moore over the next hour or so, ending with track doctors confirming he had been declared dead.

Motor racing is not as deadly a profession as it was 40 or 50 years ago, when it seemed like half the guys in Formula One didn’t get out alive, and the Indianapolis 500 was hardly better.

That was the only fatality that happened while I was at a track, and as these things do, it left me with splotchy recollections of what happened — on the track and off it.

I was pleased by the minute-by-minute account of what happened, and it appeared in the Monday morning newspaper, and I thought it a good account of how racing dealt with what had happened … right up until another colleague pointed out that my time line was an hour off from start to finish.

Daylight savings had ended, in the wee hours of the morning of October 31, and the clocks had gone back an hour. I hadn’t changed my watch to reflect the change.

Others who were there will remember other random things. The color of the car or the bright sun or the track announcers shouting or the pulverized remains of Moore’s car.

We usually don’t remember the whole of it, and it’s probably just as well we do not.



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Gene // Aug 26, 2015 at 8:34 PM

    Brock Yates, formerly of Car & Driver, wrote a spectacular book about the 1955 auto racing season, Against Death and Time: One Fatal Season in Racing’s Glory Years. That was the year of the Le Mans tragedy where 80 spectators died when a car flew off the track. A very dark view of racing in that period when death on and off the track was just taken as a norm. Without the extremely large changes that have taken place in racing since then, there is no question that racing would not be around today.

    An example is Juan Manuel Fangio’s (I think) comment about the Carrera Panamericana that ran 2100 miles on highways and city streets from Juarez to the Guatemala border through Mexico in the early 50s with no controls whatsoever on spectators. When asked for advice on how to avoid hitting spectators, Fangio supposedly said “Don’t slow down, it throws off their timing”. In the 4 years of the race 27 people died. Can you imagine anything like that anywhere in the world today?

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