In 1987, I attended my first-ever Indianapolis 500. I was probably in first grade at the time, and the entire day is now a patchwork of bold memories, with a few moments especially standing out. I remember cheering for my favorite driver, Rick Mears, and how his yellow beast of a car started on the front row, but went out early with problems. I remember car after car dropping out, unable to stand the rigorous test the Speedway still demands of man and machine. I remember Mario Andretti slowing down--perhaps the first time in my life I had heard those famous words. It was the sort of day to make a Hoosier kid fall in love with the Greatest Race Course In The World, and that's just what happened. But most of all, there remains a moment, clear as anything, that has yet to fade with time. It has to do with the loss of life.
For those unaware of that year's tragedy, on Lap 130, a tire that fell off Tony Bettenhausen's car and was punted high into the stands by Roberto Guerrero's car, with enough force to kill spectator Lyle Kurtenbach. It was a sad, freak sort of accident, and the first race day fatality since 1973.
My family was sitting in Turn 4 that day, and though I don't recall seeing the wheel fly high in the air, I do remember Guerrero slowing down with a damaged car, and finally heading back to the pits. I believe rumors reached our section some debris had gone into the crowd, but there was nothing concrete.
I don't recollect hearing until the next day the fact that a spectator had died, but when I did, I thought back to that seeing that accident. Whether you're in first grade, or in the second half of your life, you don't think of the potential for danger that awaits race fans. It's rare, and never fails to shock us, even when we know in the back of our mind it's happened before, and can happen again. That's why when fans were injured this weekend at Daytona, it was still a jarring experience, even for those of us who have seen even far worse. Perhaps it's because we don't think we've signed up for danger, disclaimers on the back of our race ticket be damned. We expect the racers on track to entertain us through their ragged-edge exploits and courage, not dodge danger ourselves. That's usually the case--but when it happens, it does give us pause.
Honestly, freak accidents happen in any activity. I've seen someone break their leg stumbling in a hole in their backyard. I've seen someone hit with a falling tree limb while moving a sprinkler. At an Indianapolis Indians game I attended as a kid, a foul ball knocked an unsuspecting woman out. The risk of going to a race is acceptable to me, and I judge it to be the same for my family.
I don't have some overarching message or moral for this entry, just an appreciation for those who work to make the race experience safer for fans and racers alike, with a special gratitude for the folks at 16th & Georgetown who have done so much for safety innovation in motorsport. It also reinforces just how wrong the "wreckin' is racin'" mindset is, and how ghoulish the hope is to witness "The Big One". Sane, responsible fans don't go to races for wrecks, and are appreciative on the relative risks out there for everyone. This past weekend's events could be a reminder of that for some, and a lesson for others.