In the wake of Justin Wilson’s death at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on August 23, 2015, Associated Press Sports Editor Paul Newberry wrote an opinion piece entitled “IndyCar is clearly too risky; time to shut it down.” Greg Zyla responds.
Q: Hi Greg, I’m wondering if you saw the recent article that appeared calling for IndyCar Racing to be shut down for good. The writer wrote it after Justin Wilson’s recent passing, and mentioned in his story many others racers that were killed or maimed in IndyCar.
I didn’t recognize this writer’s name, but it was an Associated Press article (AP) and was all over the Internet. Of course, I disagree and would like to know your feelings on IndyCar open wheel racing past and present? Thanks much, Anthony M., Ohio.
A: Anthony, yes I did read the article you mention and just like you, I disagree that IndyCar racing should be shuttered for good. [Paul Newberry’s] opinion is the exact opposite of how I look at IndyCar racing, although in his defense, we must always respect a writer’s right to share his opinion, be it pro or con. It’s perhaps the most important ingredient of being a member of “The Fourth Estate,” which includes media both written and broadcast. Also, his column was slugged as “Opinion,” which clearly allows his non-objective viewpoint.
First, there is no doubt that auto racing is dangerous in any form. As you progress up the ladder to IndyCars that can circle Indianapolis Motor Speedway at laps over 230-MPH, the dangers mount. Yet when you look at the history of open wheel racing, I can date it all the way back to the Roman Chariot races at the Roman Coliseum, where tens of thousands “packed in every Saturday” for the show.
The chariots were open wheel, the drivers exposed and the horsepower was, well, a bit different but still horsepower. Many Chariot drivers met their demise or were injured badly, as you can see in the movie “Ben Hur” as its chariot race is the most exciting part of the movie.
With this in mind, auto racing evolved into what it is today. It still attracts 100,000 people or more to our modern coliseums, while the Indianapolis 500 still attracts 250,000 to 400,000 with no signs of a letup.
During its century’s long evolution, Fortune 500 companies found out that if they put a logo and some artwork on the side of a race car, their respective products sell way better. As an example, Proctor & Gamble, currently with 21 specific brands, has successfully used motorsports to sell everything from Tide wash detergent to Old Spice deodorants that are “non-automotive” in nature. With the monetary and marketing assistance to race teams, (called “sponsorship” by most) motorsports has become a multi-faceted sport/entertainment/marketing success story, with no other sport even close to moving product like a race fan supporting their driver’s sponsor.
The AP column you mention emphasized the deaths that occurred on the race track in recent years. This writer no doubt did not do much homework on other forms of racing, like sprint cars and motorcycles or he would have found countless more fatalities to discuss.
Which leads me to this question: Had this opinion writer done his article on high school and/or college football, could he have come to the same conclusion?
Thus, in all fairness, IndyCar racing should not be shut down now or ever. This “Indy-style” class of racing dates back to the 1911 Indy 500, and even earlier counting non-sanctioned events. I agree it has gone through a deadly period of racing, especially the 1940s to the late 1960s when hundreds of racers perished in Midget, Sprint and Big Car (IndyCar) racing.
Today, thanks car safety advancements and enhanced driver protection, including head and neck restraints, auto racing is so much safer in all classes…with hundreds of thousands competing when you add in all the oval, road race and drag racing events. Additionally, the accident that took Justin Wilson’s life was a freak accident which resulted in his being hit in his helmet by a front end part that bounced off leader Sage Karam’s car when Karam hit the wall.
At that same event in qualifying, Charlie Kimball hit the wall in turn three, gyrated and climbed the catch fence a bit before landing in a crumbled race car (see photo). According to IndyCar, the G-forces his body sustained was a combined 94 Gs, yet thanks to the safety of the car (it is designed to break apart to lessen impact) and the latest in head and neck restraints, Kimball walked away a bit shaken. He not only raced the next day at Pocono, he had another podium finish of third in the IndyCar finale at Sonoma. Years ago, he could have been horribly hurt.
So, to put it all in perspective, IndyCar racing is dangerous, just like other forms of high-speed racing. Currently, IndyCar is as exciting as ever and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I’ll admit IndyCar needs a good infusion of more fans in the seats, (which I feel can be accomplished by lower ticket prices) and it also needs a solid TV network deal and better Nielsen ratings, something that is improving thanks to its current NBC Sports contract.
In summary, I’ll allow two great names from the past to end my column.
First, Napoleon: “The wrath of one writer’s pen is more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
And finally, the late great writer Ernest Hemingway: “There are only three real sports; Auto racing, Mountain climbing and Bull fighting. The others are just games.”
Thanks for your question and I’m happy to give the other side of the coin for a sport I’ve loved my entire life. (And I’m no longer a young whippersnapper.)
(Greg Zyla writes weekly for more Content Now, BestRide.com and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader response on collector cars, old-time racing and auto nostalgia at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org).