Photo: John Hendricks

The Empty Spot on the Grid

I have never been a sports person. Growing up, I didn’t like football because I thought it was just grown men tackling each other. Hockey seemed like a bunch of guys getting into fights with sticks. I didn’t like boxing or wrestling. Even soccer comes with a certain savagery that seems out of place to me.

When it comes to sports, I’ve never liked the violence of it all.

And yet, somehow, I find myself loving what might be the most violent of sports. In the nine years that I’ve been watching racing, I have mourned drivers. I’ve worried about drivers. I’ve sat through deathly quiet red flags while a driver is extracted from his destroyed car. I’ve become angry with the spectators who take pictures, who jump over each other to get the picture of the destroyed car where a driver may or may not have just lost their life. I’ve listened to the announcement that a driver is dead and then somehow continued on watching the race, as if a whole family wasn’t just destroyed.

This week, we lost Bryan Clauson, a driver I wasn’t overly familiar with, except for his attempts at the Indianapolis 500 and his adorable dog. By all accounts, this was a driver who had what might be referred to as an old soul. He raced anything he could get his hands on, but loved his dirt racing. He was hoping to do two hundred races this year, and was collecting wins to show for what would have been an insane year. He was engaged, he had an adorable puppy, and he was twenty-seven years old. I never met him, I didn’t know him, I had barely followed his career. But he had fans, he was loved, and this week, people are destroyed. It seems like not enough to simply tweet out, “My thoughts and prayers are with the Clauson family.” But what else can we say? What else can we do?

Photo: Twitter, Doug Boles

Photo: Twitter, Doug Boles

Every time a driver is killed racing, or even brutally injured like Dario Franchitti or James Hinchcliffe, the first question I’m asked by my non racing friends and family is: “How can you love a sport that kills its participants? How do you do this?” And the fact is … I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how any of us do it.

In this age of social media, where drivers tweet mundane tweets about Pokemon Go or what they’re eating for breakfast or a picture of their dogs; in this age where it’s easy to meet a driver and talk to them at the track (especially in sports car racing); in this day where drivers feel more like friends with really cool jobs than superheroes who do the impossible, how do we wish a driver good luck before a race with the knowledge they may not come back? How do we continue watching racing when we have to mourn guys like Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson, and Sean Edwards? People like to say that racing drivers deal with that knowledge because they’re just “wired differently” but what about race fans? Are we wired differently, too?

There are a couple of caveats here. Racing is inherently dangerous. There is no way to make it one hundred percent safe, but it is much safer than it’s ever been before. Neither of those things mean that we should stop trying to make it safer, or that we should take that safety for granted. There seems to be a weird separation between race fans: Camp ‘Racing is Dangerous and That’s Just Fine With Me’ and Camp ‘I Would Really Rather Racing Be A Little Safer.’ There are the fans who watch just for the wrecks, and the others who hold their breaths the second one happens. Is one of these groups heartless? No, I don’t think so. It’s just a different way to look at the issue.

Two years ago, Robin Miller suggested that racing needs the gladiator effect, the gunslinger mentality. Others have suggested it, too: that when a driver gets in their car and pulls out onto the track, they accept their fate with little concern of anything else. It’s all about the show, all about these incredibly daring feats of bravery. I’m not here to examine what makes drivers tick, or how they do what they do. I honestly have no idea.

But I have to ask this: if a racetrack is the modern day Coliseum and racing drivers are modern day gladiators, then where do we, the fans, stand? Are we the bloodthirsty Romans, desperate for violence?

I don’t think we are. I don’t think it’s easy to explain how we do this. We go to races, meet the drivers, take our selfies, and then wish them luck. If you’re like me, you have a little mantra. “Good luck, be safe, go fast, I’ll see you after.” Is there a voice in the back of my mind that reminds me I might not? No. I don’t think I could sit through a twenty-four hour race if there were. And then we watch, breathless and excited. Our emotions soar with every lap, we are amazed by incredible passes, and all the while we’re watching something that is inherently dangerous. Are we living vicariously through these incredible drivers? Do we crave that kind of talent? That kind of speed?

After Dan Wheldon died, I remember I told a friend that if I were ever watching a race where a driver died, I didn’t think I could keep watching it. Two years later, I was watching Le Mans when Allan Simonsen had his fatal crash. But instead of turning it off, I took one of the many caution periods that year to go outside, take a few deep breaths, and then return to the racing. Later, I said that if I were ever at a race where a driver was seriously injured or killed, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep going to races. A few short months later, I was at Daytona when Memo Gidley was in his horrific crash. I will never, for as long as I live, forget how quiet the track was during that red flag period. My best friend and I went to my car, sat in silence for a bit, and then returned to the racing. How do we do this? How, mentally, do racing fans continue to love this sport even when it’s at its darkest?

Since then, we have lost some incredible drivers and have come close to losing others. Watching James Hinchcliffe’s violent crash at Indianapolis last year had me in tears for the rest of the day, and I still can’t watch it. Dario’s crash in Houston and subsequent retirement broke my heart.

Sean Edwards. Jules Bianchi. Justin Wilson. Bryan Clauson.

Talented and amazing drivers who lost their lives doing what they loved. And still I have to ask: how do we do this? Are we wired as differently as the drivers?

I think everyone has their own reason for pushing on. I think everyone has their own special passion that burns for this sport. Some look at facts, the facts that tell us the sport is safer and we continue to make it safer every season. Some keep moving forward with the knowledge that it happened again, probably will happen again, and it will be difficult.

For me, and maybe this is how I’m wired differently, but I look at the reason I fell in love with racing in the first place. I remember the first time I stood at the top of the grandstands at Homestead and felt the vibration of a Mazda RX-8 as it came roaring past. I remember that feeling of being alive. Because in the racing paddock, there is so much life and so much joy. And just as in life, sometimes that joy comes with sorrow and pain. But still, I come back. I come back to find that joy, to feel as alive as I did that first day at Homestead.

The racing community has its heartache, the cracks left behind by tragedy. We will come together as a family, put together by passion for a sport, and we will mourn together. We will throw the weight of our passion behind a grieving family. And though there will always be an empty spot on the grid, we will continue to find strength in the racing community as a whole, in our fellow fans who understand how we can both love and hate this sport.

Rest in peace, Bryan Clauson. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, loved ones, friends, fans, and adorable puppies. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the USAC Benevolent Fund: usacbf.org/cash-donation

-KT

Featured Image: John Hendricks

1 Comments

  1. There is another camp of accepting it’s a dangerous sport while continually advancing safety. It’s an optional event, racing. Participants like the rushe, spectators like the competition and speed, some like accidents. I do not like accidents. I like the teamwork and combination of managing the car’s components and driver skill.

    Why do we continue watching? It’s not because we value the sport above the drivers’ lives, but because it’s a developed passion, strengthened by the ties we have to those drivers.

    Racing is probably the most inherently dangerous, but not the most violent. I’d say combat sports take that distinction. The only reason there aren’t more deaths in blood sports is there is a referee who can and does (most of the time) step in to prevent loss of life or more permanent damage.

    Sports cars, lower level racing, and American open wheel are must more personal and personable to fans. This adds the human element that affects us as fans. I know more about Felipe Massa and James Hinchcliffe, but having met the latter and only having seen Massa race from a distance on one occasion, well, you can see where my feelings sway, and why.

    Fans of American racing normally have mug more attachment to these athletes and take loss much harder than many other sports.

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