Monday, June 23, 2008

Death, destruction and the allure of racing cars

To follow motor racing for any length of time means you have seen someone, at some point, lose their life in competition. We've been witness to a host of fatalities over the years that serve as a reminder to the risks associated with an endeavor such as motor racing.

Here's the "off the top of our head" list of drivers who have lost their lives since we've been cognizant of the great sport of motor racing:

Dale Earnhardt
Ayrton Senna
Greg Moore
Paul Dana

Sadly another name can be added: Scott Kalitta.

This is just an abbreviated list and is only meant to show what folks should already know: Motor racing is different than most other sports. We watched many of these guys die on television. They died in front of an audience. They died in the name of competition and entertainment. People die racing cars. People don't die playing baseball or basketball. That's just the nature of the beast.

Some claim the inherent dangers of motor racing are the allure of the sport. Danger draws people to compete and danger draws spectators.

This probably has some truth to it. That is, until someone actually dies while competing. That sucks the novelty right out of danger and destruction. The last time we checked, it's tough to impress high school girls with your drivers suit and helmet when you're dead. It's equally tough to convey to an outsider how great the sport is, when you've just seen a participant perish on the playing field. It makes you sick. It makes racing not fun.

Motor racing (as with any sport) is a distraction for fans. It is meant to be fun. People watch races on television and attend events because motor sports are entertaining. If your job sucks, your wife is fat, your kid is a fuck-up and your house is a piece of shit, you can always watch a motor race on TV, down a six-pack on a Sunday afternoon and be more content with your self-being than you were three hours previous.

That all can be tossed out the window when someone is killed at a racetrack.

Last weekend in Englishtown, New Jersey, Kalitta lost his life behind the wheel of a Funny Car.

As with most deaths (excluding the few and far between Field of Dreams-esque reincarnations), there will be no bringing Kalitta back. Which, from what we understand, is quite a shame. From the outpouring of remembrance-themed writings, video tributes and firsthand recollections of his life, Scott Kalitta sounded like a real racers-racer. We did not know him, nor have any direct connection to people who did. In person, we maybe saw Kalitta race three times. Doesn't matter. When the inherent fun of something is taken away, no matter how distant the victim (in this case) seems, it spoils that activity and makes people rethink why they like something.

There is an old sports saying that goes something like:

A bad day at the ballpark, beats a good day almost anywhere else.

(Ed- We're sure to be fucking this up. Apologies to the old men who sit in parks across the nation spewing these meaningless sayings to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot).

This is completely not applicable to motor racing. A "bad day" at the racetrack is worse than a bad day anywhere else. A bad ballpark day for a player is 0-4 at the dish and a few errors. A bad ballpark day for a fan is a spilling a beer and getting the trots from an $11 cheesesteak.

A bad day at the race track is what happened last Saturday in New Jersey.

Many clichés get tossed about when drivers are killed. "They died doing what they loved" is our favorite because it -like all good clichés- is completely true. Kalitta was somewhat fortunate in that sense. But that probably holds little solace for his friends and family at this point. Not to mention the fans who poured into Englishtown for a weekend fun and excitement, who left feeling sick and punched in the balls.

When reduced to its core, motor racing is about having fun. Sure, at its highest levels, racing is big fucking business. Millions of dollars are thrown around, sponsors need to be pleased, payroll needs to be made, but even at the pinnacle of the sport, owners, crew guys and drivers are there because it's a bloody hoot. Guys like Roger Penske, Don Prudhomme and Richard Childress got into the sport because they had a passion for racing. You wouldn't have that sort of passion without it being a little fun.

So, when the fun stops, and a huge dose of reality sets in, it takes people back. You reevaluate why you enjoy motor racing and what you gain from the sport. You think about other sports not dealing with this sort of thing.

You always return to motor racing. It's like malt liquor. It is just too good not to have in your life. You conclude you love motor racing because it's fucking sweet and you enjoy the hillbilly stigma attached to telling people you follow the sport. And there is no other place you would want to spend a weekend than at a motoring circuit. Period.

It's this passion that makes racing-types different. We are able to mourn the loss of a racers-racer, make safety changes in hopes that Kalitta will be the last to lose his life, but damn well know he wont be.

Danger, part of the allure? Maybe, but if that's the only reason you follow the sport, you are not truly a fan. You don't have a clue. You are like those kids in high school who dress in black and end up shooting-up chemistry class. You suck.

Anyway, before we start to ramble further-

Cheers to you, Scott Kalitta. Enjoy the great smoky burnout in the sky.

*all photos from

1 comment:

Meesh said...

Certainly puts life into perspective in a sudden eye opening way huh?

RIP to Dino Crescentini who also died this weekend during the Vintage race at Mosport in Ontario.