I have a friend of mine who is a huge racing fan. He likes F1 and tends to look down on other racing formats and series like NASCAR and Indy Car (and its earlier offshoot, Champ Car). Yet he is such a racing fan that he watches them all, and secretly likes them all—along with Le Mans (both the true European version and its American counterpart), rally car racing, kart racing, and a whole sundry of other racing sub-series. He’s a “gear head” of sorts, but as a college professor, he never gets the opportunity to exhibit his race-car driving virtue on the road that he dutifully takes to his English classes—nor, does he get to experience truly the pleasures of constantly tweaking the engine to his own automobile (a BMW) for maximum power, handling and speed (though he tries). So he enjoys watching racing, which I must admit has to be the most boring yet simultaneously adrenalin rushed spectator sport that there is. Apart from a childhood fascination with fast cars and the cartoon Speed Racer, whatever knowledge and interest I currently have in racing is entirely due to my friend’s efforts to introduce me to his passion. This introduction was somewhat effective, but ultimately I still don’t get it even if I have grown to respect it.

There used to be a joke that the audience went to auto races simply in order to see a huge crash. But apart from the Roman decadence of seeing death in bread and circuses (or free Winston cigarettes and cheap 20 ounce Bud Lights consumed to the tune of the Spar Spangled Banner), this wasn’t entirely true, if it ever was. Years ago when Dale Earnhardt died in a crash which from the outside looked relatively minor, the lie that fans wished to see such crashes was made evident. In Texas at least, the tributes to Earnhardt are still seen to this day on cars and pickup trucks emblazoned with the distinctive number 8. I’m sure most would wish that he could have lived to become an elder racing statesman like Mario Andretti, A.J Foyt, Jackie Stewart or Richard Petty became in their later years. No one wishes to see the fate another Ayton Senna who was killed at San Marino in 1994 at the age of 34. The same distaste for the death of drivers holds true in the horrific crash that killed Dan Wheldon in the recent Las Vegas Indy Car Championship at aged 33. No one with any sense of dignity could ever claim that such a crash was the reason for their fandom.

I mention all this because my friend persuaded me to attend a few race events—including an F1 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a hot summer day and I was hungover, and as a spectator sport I found it pretty boring. But the noise, the power, the speed was overwhelming, and it was made even more so by the spirited fans we met from Croatia who had travelled all the way to the American Heartland to watch their favorite Michael Schumacher race his Ferrari. Needless to say Schumacher won that race (and yes there was a pretty big crash, with no deaths, on the first lap), but it should also be mentioned that overall it was a great event. I am the furthest thing from a “gear head” or “race fan”, but I can recognize a meaningful phenomenon when I see one, and furthermore I saw that there is real excitement in seeing a live race with cars barreling through straightaways and tightly braking at turns all at an incredible velocity. The whole scene of sights, sounds and smells was intoxicating. However, from my idiosyncratic point of view, compared to football (American, that is), baseball, tennis, and even basketball (meaning March Madness not NBA), racing just doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, until one realizes the power and immense danger of auto racing. As I stated, no one with dignity wishes death, but racing is surely the most dangerous of all sports (sports as opposed to games—which can unscientifically be defined as leisured activities that you can engage in while holding a beer in your hand). Racing is the putting your life at risk every time you get behind the wheel of machines that move at such great speed, and this is what makes auto racing so compelling. So there is something to the old (bad) joke about crashes and even death. In our safety-obsessed society, men (and women like Danica Patrick) show a willingness for the sake of sport—of all things—to risk their own lives. Yes, in this sport there is the opportunity to make money and gain fame, but there is also the willingness to take a car to its maximum limits and vie against others in the most dangerous of ways in order to show that you are better than others at taking this risk.

Race car driving shows both a willingness to take technology to its furthest limits, as well as a dependence upon that same technology. After all, if there are no cars, then there is no race. What makes the race exhilarating is, despite the reliance on technology, the driver is willing to take it to ends that the technology was perhaps not made to go. But then the idea of technology of itself seems to foreclose such a question of what its right end or purpose would be in the first place. It is precisely the willingness to put one’s own life at risk that makes race car driving so compelling and fascinating, and surely no one would want to invent a machine whose only purpose was to show this risk. But such may be race car driving in principle. After the sorrowful death of Dan Wheldon, some might think it proper to advocate the abolition of racing. It serves no productive purpose. As a human activity, it costs an immense amount of money and can easily lead to death (like NASA). The fan might respond that yes, safety concerns must be made central, but as is the case of football helmets and head injuries, each new safety innovation in auto racing meets advances in speed and power which only seem to make the risk even greater. Somehow the technology itself is in the driver’s seat and takes the sport into ever and more increasing dangers.

Despite what I have written, I’m honestly not a major race fan. But Mr. Wheldon’s death has made me wonder regarding what the attraction to racing is in the first place. Liking movies as I do, perhaps I can explain this post in terms of a few films which address the questions regarding the great risk that racing entails, the way in which technology becomes an end in itself, and why that technology and risk are both central to the appeal that racing holds. Let me recommend Winning (with Paul Newman), Le Mans (with Steve McQueen) and the John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix (with James Garner).

All this was really a way to say R.I.P. to Dan Wheldon. I recognize that questions have been made about the propriety of the oval track for Indy Car racing, the shortness of this specific Las Vegas track, and the number of cars racing on that day, but in this post I merely want to emphasize the death defying daring that Wheldon and all the other racers displayed on that day, as they do on any other race day. If racing sounds like nihilism as drivers put themselves into the hands of a technology that is ultimately bigger than simple rational control, consider the fact that the films I mentioned don’t emphasize such nihilism, but rather in their depiction of the drivers, they show a manly and stoic self control in the face of a dangerous world.

And of course my English professor friend who introduced me to the allure of auto racing, I hope he will continue in his racing fandom (as I’m sure he will) despite the pragmatic arguments from the point of view of safety.

On a lighter note, but not to detract from the seriousness of Mr. Wheldon’s death, in my movie list I failed to mention the great Talladega Nights (with Ricky Bobby).

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Articles by John Presnall

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