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The Way It Is/ Dangers lurks as an unmoveable presence in racing

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
Cristiano da Matta's accident while testing at Road America last week reminded all of us that even in today's sanitized, safety-conscious world, racing remains a dangerous business. Da Matta's collision with a deer was a rare, bizarre incident and it emphasized the point that anything can happen in racing.

At this stage, it's impossible for anyone to predict how well Cristiano will recover from his head injuries. Everyone in the sport hopes for da Matta's full recovery and wishes him and his family the best during this difficult time. As well as being an excellent racing driver, Cristiano is a fine fellow, one of the sport's most likeable characters with a particularly dry sense of humor and joyful grin. He's also a relentless fighter and that imperturbable quality will serve Cristiano well on his long road to recovery.

Coming in the wake of Paul Tracy's collision and subsequent wrestling match with Alex Tagliani in San Jose, da Matta's accident was especially sobering. Tracy escaped injury from a foolish accident in the heat of battle and was subsequently fined, penalized seven points and put on probation for three races. Meanwhile, da Matta was seriously injured in a single-car testing accident which was impossible to anticipate. Justice can be hard to find in this world.

Tracy has been involved in many incidents during his long career and has been lucky to escape serious injury. Over time, Paul has gotten away with a lot without doing much sheet time. He broke a leg back in 1991 when he crashed at the Michigan Speedway when he was a rookie for Penske and chipped a vertebra in another accident at Michigan in '96. Otherwise he's been injury-free.

In San Jose, Tracy made a serious mistake when he ran out of patience after sliding into an escape road and re-entered the track at exactly the wrong moment in the face of Tagliani and a train of other cars. The inevitable collision put both drivers out of the race and left Tagliani, whose team has been piecing together crashed car after crashed car this year, in an apopletic frame of mind. Tagliani is an emotional fellow and he went after Tracy to rage about the additional damage done to his struggling team. Tracy knew he'd made a mistake and had nothing to say to Tagliani until Alex's relentless hectoring got the better of him, resulting in the infamous wrestling match.

Katherine Legge also made a hash of her race in San Jose. Legge got involved in a handful of incidents during the race and finally used her car as a weapon against Andrew Ranger, putting the young Canadian into the wall. Legge was very remorseful the night after the race but she has also been placed on probation by Champ Car.

Of course, the crowded environment of street racing often results in crashes, collisions and arguments. Improved as it was this year, San Jose remains one of the tightest little tracks in big-time racing, and it's inevitable that incidents like we saw there this year are going to happen. Yet the accident and scuffling match between Tracy and Tagliani pale in comparison to the number of accidents, arguments and penalties ladled out at Long Beach ten years ago.

CART was at its competitive height in those days with twenty-one teams, four chassis builders, four engine manufacturers and the first seventeen cars at Long Beach in 1996 covered by one second. Competition was fierce and there had been a series of on-track incidents in the three races that preceeded Long Beach that year. Michael Andretti in particular had gotten himself into bad odor with some of his peers and at the drivers meeting at Long Beach, Tracy, Robby Gordon and Mauricio Gugelmin arrived wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, 'Michael Andretti Driving School for the Blind'. You can imagine that the atmosphere was contentious, to say the least.

Then in the race, Andretti collided with both Gugelmin and his teammate Teo Fabi, resulting in a post-race argument between Andretti and Gugelmin and a scuffle between their respective teams. Both crews were fined and Andretti was put on probation. Also during that race, Christian Fittipaldi and Greg Moore crashed spectacularly while battling for position. Fittipaldi jumped out of his crashed car, ran over to Moore's crumpled machine and threw a few punches, earning himself a cash fine. I don't know that we've seen a race since then with such rock 'em, sock 'em action on and off the track.

It's possible then that we've progressed, although it may be that the depth of competition is not there today in Champ Car and IRL. If you were actually able to put the two series together, you might find yourself back to the old days in more ways than one!

Meantime, I was interested to hear Stefan Johansson say that he's quit racing in the GrandAm series. "It's becoming too much like NASCAR," Johansson said. "They wanted to bump you out of the way, rather than race you clean. Racing is about working the other guy, finding his weaknesses and working on them. It might take the whole race to get by him. Sometimes, you might never find a way by, but that's racing. It's not about knocking the other guy out of the way."

Johansson told a story about being hit three times by another car going into turn two at Laguna Seca during a GrandAm race. Stefan said his competitor's poor manners got the better of him and instead of braking for the next turn he kept accelerating and deliberately clouted the guy in the tail, knocking him off the track. "I've never done that before and I got on the radio and said, 'I'm coming in. I just ran a guy off the road. They're going to give me the black flag.' I was really embarassed, but I wasn't going to put up with that kind of crap!"

In stock car racing of course, the art of using the fender is one of the most sophisticated of skills. Dale Earnhardt Sr was extremely accomplished in this department, making his reputation as both 'Ironhead' and 'The Intimidator' because of his ability to bump and run so effectively.

But open-wheel racing and road racing as a whole are different kettles of fish. Until recent times, contact was to be avoided because it often resulted in a crash and sometimes injury. Going back thirty and forty years ago, before the advent of firesuits, fuel cells, full-face helmets and seat belts, let alone crushable structures and the Hans device, contact was entirely verboten because it could easily result in serious injury or death. In this way, times have changed substantially and for the better, but danger still lurks as an unmoveable presence in racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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