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This Is Why We Watch the Indianapolis 500

May 28th, 2017 · No Comments · Motor racing

So, sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, clock reaches late afternoon, and the thought hits me that the Indy 500 might be televised over here.

And this actually happened:

The TV comes up on ESPN GB (Great Britain) … and the first image we see is a slow-motion replay of a car flying through the air and crash-landing on a wall separating the infield from the race track.

The vehicle continues to disintegrate, shedding wheels and struts and wings till nothing is left attached to the “safety cell” except the left-front wheel.

Which leads to the mental note: “Yeah, that’s Indy.”

Holy mackerel.

It perhaps is not necessary to say we watched the final two-and-a-half hours of the race.

It probably also is not necessary to say the 52nd-lap accident, which left driver Scott Dixon shaken but not seriously hurt, is just about the best thing that can happen at an Indy car event.

In terms of casual fans, that is.

To see the crash is to marvel that Scott Dixon is alive, let alone able to walk away from the pile of rubble that was his car.

In the video, after one of the many camera angles is shown to us, we hear one of the announcers mention how effective the safety cell, as the cockpit apparently is now named, is in protecting drivers.

That allows for the threat of imminent high-speed mayhem — without actually killing anyone. The best of both worlds.

(Though they were lucky, at Indy, considering a photographer was in the vicinity of where Dixon’s car hit the fence; the photographer was not in a safety cell.)

There certainly is something compelling in watching an accident in slow motion. How did it begin? How did it unfold? How did it end? How did other drivers escape it?

Indy has a lethal history. So many drivers, 41, died there in the previous century, that perhaps the most famous first sentence the columnist Jim Murray ever wrote was while he was at the Brickyard. To wit: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”

The track and the big race are not nearly as deadly as they once were. It has been 14 years since a driver suffered a fatal injury there, and that was during a tire-testing session in October 2003. The most recent fatality surrounding the race was in 1996, when Scott Brayton died during a practice session.

The most recent driver death linked to a Indy 500 race-day incident was that of Swede Savage, who died approximately a month after a fiery crash in 1973, 44 years ago.

Open-wheel racing of all types, including Formula One (with 51 fatalities), was once a pretty good way of getting yourself killed. But the safety features have improved tremendously. To the point that drivers in the top echelons of motor sports now sit inside a rugged compartment impervious even to the shock of slamming into a fence at 200 miles per hour. As was the case in today’s race with Dixon, the pole-sitter and former champion.

Drivers who have sailed through the air at high speed, tumbling, flipping, slamming into walls, are now able to give us a first-hand account of how it felt.

Of his wreck, Dixon said: “It’s weird, when anybody has been in an accident like that, even in a road car, I think your senses are heightened and it slows down a lot. It feels almost like a 30-minute accident, as opposed to a few seconds.

“Yeah, I remember looking down. I’m, like, ‘This is really high, this is gonna hurt, gonna hurt when it lands. But luckily, you know, the back of the car got into the fence, which took some of the force out of it. Very lucky that it was the back of the car that hit the fence and not the front.”

Seven more drivers went out of the race today with what the racing fraternity likes to call “contact” — four of them in a chain-reaction crash on the 183rd lap that also was replayed many times.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway by no means is the only track that has been the scene of dozens of fatalities.

This item breaks out the five tracks that have seen the most deadly incidents, for drivers, and yes, Indy is top of the heap — followed by the Nurburgring, in Germany; Monza, in Italy; Le Mans, in France; and the Daytona International Speedway, site of Dale Earnhardt’s life-ending crash in 2001, the most recent death for a driver in stock-car racing’s top level.

(If you continue past the five-most-lethal-tracks table, on the website linked in the previous paragraph, you can see an enormous list of racing deaths, organized alphabetically by driver’s surname. I’m sure it is not complete.)

I am not a fan of motor racing. It can be quite dull when car are tooling around an oval (left turn, left turn, etc.) or running processionally with few or even zero passes (hello, F1).

But I concede my interest is piqued when the danger of it all, which has been reduced, not eliminated, is thrust into our faces from the safety of our living rooms.




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