Life on edge remains part of draw


Auto Racing

May 12, 2002|By SANDRA MCKEE

They've installed "soft walls" at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and by the time the Indianapolis 500 is finished May 26, they will have been well-tested.

Tracks -- including New Hampshire International Speedway, where NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed -- already have announced they will install the safety structures. Others, no doubt, will follow suit after determining how those walls will work at their facilities.

All of it is being done in the pursuit of safety. And that is good. Surely, no one wants to see any more deaths while enjoying a sporting event at the racetrack.

But as I sat here contemplating what that means, I had an irregular thought. Yes, irregular -- out of line -- one might say.

Does racing risk losing part of its appeal if soft walls eliminate the possibility of death?

An ugly thought. I've spent decades arguing with people who don't like or don't understand racing about whether race fans come to the races to see death and destruction. I've always said real race fans don't come for that, that they come for the competition and the near-misses.

But as I think about the move toward safer races, I'm wondering if what I've always thought can, in fact, coexist with my politically incorrect question.

I called NASCAR, and Herb Branham, a spokesman for the Winston Cup Series, told me, "I think it's misguided to think the possibility of death is a big factor of fueling fan interests. Our No. 1 concern will always be safety, and safety doesn't mean you're compromising competition."

He has a good point. But I'm not really sure people are consciously aware that the danger aspect is part of the drama. I think it might just sit in the back of our minds. The simple dread of it adds a tension to what we're watching, doesn't it?

I called Humpy Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway. Wheeler has been campaigning and supporting safety research for years. At least five years ago, he said, "There should never be a death in motorsports. We should be ashamed of ourselves."

I asked him my question. Wheeler didn't think it was a crazy question.

"It seems a reasonable question to ask," he said. "If you look at the NFL, where paralysis is a real possibility, and a player goes down and doesn't move and the stadium goes silent. When the player gets up, there is a huge roar of relief. No one would admit it added to the thrill of the day.

"If you're asking will it take the macho out, eliminate the idea of the brave, courageous people participating -- I don't think so. Great skill is required to be successful in racing. I don't think injury and death has to be part of it."

But Wheeler went on. What he added was a question of his own.

"What if you asked: Would the fans come if all the wrecks were eliminated? I'd say no. The wrecks attract the people. If you wrote in your newspaper that there would be two cars running head-on into each other at the Inner Harbor at 3 p.m. today, you'd attract a very big crowd."

Which brings me back to that original question. Almost everyone turns his head to look at a crash scene alongside the highway. But is it the mangled metal we're fascinated by, or are we straining our eyes to see the condition of the people inside?

Close IRL finishes

With the starting field for the Indianapolis 500 in the middle of being set today, it is interesting to note that the Indy Racing League has become expert at close finishes.

Statistics show 21 of the 60 IRL races -- 35 percent -- conducted since the series debut in January 1996 have included finishing margins of one second or less. Another 11 races -- 18 percent -- have had finishing margins between one and two seconds.

A strong heart

Today honors moms, and next month we'll celebrate dads. Today, pit crewman Ken Christerson, who changes the rear tires on driver Jeff Purvis' Busch Series title-contending race car, is celebrating an extraordinarily happy day with both of his parents.

Christerson will spend today in Central City, Ky., with his parents, Ouida and Tom, who have been married 54 years. Tom Christerson is 71. The past 238 days of those 71 years have been made possible by a self-contained artificial heart, called the AbioCor heart. Tom is the longest-living AbioCor recipient.

Nuts and bolts

Steve Kinser, Danny Lasoski and Mark Kinser have taken turns leading the Pennzoil World of Outlaws Series point standings this season. Now, the trio will lead "The Greatest Show on Dirt" into the Hagerstown Speedway on Saturday. Joining the Outlaws in the open-wheel doubleheader will be the KARS 358 sprints.

Gates will open at 5 p.m., with racing at 8. Warm-ups begin at 7:30 p.m.

Reserved grandstand tickets will be $32, general admission tickets $28 and kids under 12 will be free in the general admission area. For information, call the speedway office at 301-582-0640.

Want to ask Jeff Gordon a question? Send your questions to tomorrow and Tuesday. His replies will be posted June 3.

A record 27 drivers will compete in The Winston all-star race Saturday at 9 p.m. The command to start their engines will be given by the race's grand marshal, President Bush, via taped video. During the president's address, he also will speak about the resolve of the American people in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

DeWalt driver Matt Kenseth made up two laps during the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond last week to finish sixth. Now, Kenseth is looking forward to the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 26 for his third victory of the season. The 600 is the race that Kenseth won in the 18th start of his 2000 rookie season.

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