Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Not Good Enough

It doesn't seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.

Maybe it's because it hasn't been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of 'Indycar family' and hope) following Wheldon's death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn't want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent "Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt's third entry" birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering - "what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?"

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine 'innovative and working future-thought laboratory' for auto manufacturers as I'd dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

"Duh." might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people - the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress - working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I've written before about the 'the long dark thread' woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but "why?" Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it's always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn't paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn't paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I'm of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn't to say that the current cars aren't amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren't sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they're highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it's enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I'll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I'm telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar - I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.

What we have today is simply not good enough.

Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Alternate Realities, Part II

Back again folks. 

During the in-between days where the luster of the Indy 500 becomes patina and the pomp of season culmination not quite here, I dare to fill that space with something that most other outlets do not - rewrite the amazing and rich history of Indycar's biggest event, The Indy 500.

Knowing that between the fates, Racing Gods, and free will, something amazing can and often does happen. I find it refreshing to not simply rehash and parse history, but to ponder "what might have been".  

Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate's final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events, that nine times out of ten would turn out differently and more predictably, yet didn't, forever changed the future course of the race itself. 

From time-to-time, I'm going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history. I hope you enjoy this installment of Alternate Realities:

1967 - Something We've Never Seen Before:
The 51st Running of the Indy 500 set for Tuesday, May 30th, 1967 was one of the most historic before any race laps were ever turned. A wildly innovative car was brought by Andy Granatelli to the speedway in 1967 - the STP Paxton turbine. Utilizing a helicopter jet engine and four-wheel drive, the totally purpose-built car incited as much fear as curiosity in the racing community and beyond. While I was not present to observe this car and the reactions of those around, it is generally noted that the reactions centered around one of two - disapproval for how it could affect the integrity of the Indy 500, or wide-eyed curiosity for what it could mean for the future of racing and production automobiles. 

The end-result however was one of heartbreak and disappointment for Granatelli, STP, and all those who developed and supported it. With just under four laps to go, after leading 170 of the 196 laps, an inexpensive but invaluable part failed in the transmission line sending the disturbingly quiet turbine car to an even-more-shockingly silent end and A.J. Foyt into victory lane for his third time, tying Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose for most Indy 500 wins.

Now let's engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path...

The $6 transmission bearing survives another 240 seconds of use and the incredibly wild, incredibly brightly-painted and futuristic STP Turbine, becomes the latest in a rapid progression of innovative cars to win the Indy 500. Rufus Parnelli Jones joins Milton, Vuky, Ward and Foyt as two-time winners of the 500. With the incredible and dominant win, USAC's attempts to shutter (outlaw) the turbine are met with surprising push-back from manufacturers and fans alike who are excited and ready for jet propulsion as the future of production vehicles. Chrysler, GM, and Ford all rush to begin turbine-powered factory racing programs.  The internal combustion engine soldiers on for another seven years, winning only once more (via the venerable Offy), before going the way of the front-engined chassis at Indy. 

Parnelli goes repeats his wins with two more Indy 500s (in 1968 with the turbine motor and again in 1970, after being recruited by a rival team, ironically recording the Offy's final win) becoming the first person to win four 500s.  Parnelli subsequently retires from racing in Victory Lane only to join STP Granatelli Racing in 1971 as a team partner and overseeing the Chrysler factory NASCAR jet-engine racing program. 

By the mid-1970s, all major forms of motorsport employ various configurations of smaller turbine motors while production vehicle sales for the first turbine passenger cars off the assembly line are staggering. With surprising initial reliability, multiple fuel options, and quick public acceptance, the 'jet-age' is ushered in.  All manner of styling is affected, from clothing to appliances to architecture.

The internal combustion engine soldiers on in rapidly-decreasing numbers in passenger cars but still with primary use in farm and heavy equipment. Never again is the internal combustion engine seen as being near the forefront of propulsion technology.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Perception Is Everything

"There are things known,
and things unknown, 
and in between 
are the doors of perception"
- Aldous Huxley

With a relatively late-in-the-day 4-hour drive home from the Milwaukee Mile Sunday night, and my fully-tired 11-year-old son asleep in the co-pilot's seat, I had some extended solitude with which to consider my very enjoyable weekend in West Allis, Wisconsin. 

Typically, I'll stay off Twitter while at a race because I am a big advocate of simply filling your senses with the many inputs received during a race.  This beautiful Sunday, however, tweeting while watching the racing as moments allowed, came much more easily than in other recent events (Indy 500). While doing so, following others' comments via twitter confirmed for me my belief that the intake of the product in-person and for those not on-site is different and that those differences are quite marked.  I also noted that even at various locations in this relatively small venue, the experience is different. 

Reflecting during my drive I was left with many positives over those 36 hours, but also two crucial items that I believe strongly Indycar must concern themselves with: what the product is and how to best manage its perception (or reception). Since I've already written about the existential ennui of Indycar multiple times, I'm going to take aim at how it's perceived.

During practice and qualifying, I took a seat near the end of the front straight in the front row, just 15 feet away from the cars at speed. 179 mph trap speeds at a range of 15 feet or less is close to mind-blowing, and especially so when watching them negotiate a seemingly-impossible 180-degree, flat-arc change of direction over the next five seconds. 

Much as you have, I've seen in-car camera views of them going upwards of 235 mph, but being in-person and so close, even at 180, is the best way to really sense how fast they're going. For the race, my seats were near the same point of the straight but within 3 rows of the top. Huge difference in perception! 50' above and approximately 75' away from those cars (see pic - P = Practice, R = Race). The cars look fairly fast yet fairly benign from that location.

Imagine going from standing on a sidewalk proximity to a 7th floor window view across a four-lane street. Sure the overall view is better, it simply isn't the same experience in any regard.  I've always been an advocate of sitting as closely as possible as it seems in direct correlation with how amazing the sensation of the cars speed is.  

Herein lies my point - Indycar MUST be able to give as many fans as possible this experience. Even if not everyone could sit in Row 1 and see them speeding by, to have this in practice gives a new perspective on just how fast these cars are, even at "just 180 mph". 

The perception that the racing isn't very thrilling unless masses of cars are heaped on top of each other goes away quite rapidly when you see just one of these cars ripping by you that closely at speed. You can quite easily see the difficulty of their proposition and to then consider a tightly bunched pack is, in fact, lunacy.

Getting more fans closer access needs to be a priority even in the age of moving fans farther away from the danger. It's imperative that the fan see just how amazing these cars are and as closely as possible. Finding a way to also get that sensation communicated via a camera to a remote viewer is a challenge even-bigger although the in-car cameras begin to approach it. 

I've yet to see the TV coverage from this weekend but I'm sure I'll be quite amazed at how poorly the sensation of speed comes across. Other forms of racing may be suited for the types of camera angles we've seen for decades, but Indycar would do itself much credit to develop an entirely new way of receiving the product for those not in attendance and also figuring out a way to emphasize how being in-person is the best way to see it.

I can't even remember how many times I've said, "TV doesn't do it justice".  Perhaps no other sport I've attended reflects this sentiment quite as much.

Blow up the decades-old methods of visually presenting Indycars at speed from high above and a wide-angles.  

Give us a view and a sensation that is totally unique and amazing.

Editor's Note: I'll have some continuing thoughts on this subject as a guest blogger over at Oilpressure.com tomorrow for the Brainstorming Series.