Friday, October 21, 2011

A family I never knew I had.

It's been a little less than a week since the tragedy of the Wheldon accident and I've been a bit surprised about a few things and the following thoughts have become apparent.

The Unexpected Grief: I don't know the Wheldons personally in anyway, yet felt much more grief and loss than I may have expected if and when the day came that an Indycar driver died while racing. Just by using the word 'if' in the previous statement makes me realize what a false sense of security had existed when it comes to Indycar racing. I've seen too many very ugly, flipping, twisting Indycar wrecks, only to have the vast majority of drivers escape with relatively minor-to-moderate injury and certainly life not threatened.

The Lack of Editorial Decorum: By both mainstream media and by other newer forms, much of what was thrown out by a relatively uninformed majority of media that reported on this event was largely wasteful (reporting of others reporting), harmful (endless replays of the crash footage), and opinion-based drivel. I will not link to the specific evidence here, suffice to say that NBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, ABC's 'The View', and GOOD magazine/blog, were all ignoring their significant lack of knowledge and leveraging the tragedy for little more than their own sensationalist gain. The reprehensible nature of this 'death porn' coverage shows zero respect for those most affected and the responsibility lies with those persons and their editors/producers who choose how and what the story is to fit their own narrow agenda. So far from quality journalistic reportage this was that my distaste for those certain media outlets is greater than ever before. In the wake of this putrid and trashy coverage, I would be seriously remiss if I didn't mention that genuine and respectful reportage was done by some who chose to report the facts as they came, and not sensationalize the event. ABC/ESPN's live race coverage was immediately and appropriately highly concerned and their follow-up reporting was proper by all accounts of those who follow this sport. 'Beat' writers such as Nate Ryan of USA Today, Marshall Pruett of SpeedTV, Ryan McGee of ESPN, and Jenna Fryer for AP all contributed in appropriate manners and their approaches are to be commended, but again, they are familiar with this sport whereas the poorest of coverage comes from outlets who have admittedly no knowledge of the sport, yet feel compelled to spew forth with sweeping opinion and scornful declarations which do nothing but more damage. 

The Social Media Family: Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook have enabled a tighter Indycar community through rapid and voluminous communication. In the case of this tragedy, events can be openly discussed and the goodness of human nature was made evident with tremendous immediacy. So much outpouring of help and goodness toward the Wheldon family as a result of this tightness reminds us all of how a community (despite the lack of geographical bounds) is to respond in troubled times. In some ways, I believe we all have a basal need for community and now more than ever there are multiple avenues to achieve it. This, in my view, is a good thing and just being in 'conversation' via Twitter, blogs, Facebook and the like have allowed us all to better handle the grieving process we feel as the dedicated followers of this sport.

That last item has been especially helpful in the wake of Wheldon's death as it is a surprising and newer dynamic to me. Very much in line with most familial dynamics, we can fight and bicker among ourselves, yet when an 'outsider' attacks our kindred, we are quick to band together against the 'invader' as was seen with our replies to the ill-informed opinions which called for many things to 'correct' the wrongs of our sport. I grew up in a very small family. Two parents and me. Many cousins, mostly distant whose sharing of live essentially only came at annual holiday gatherings or major family events.

So it with some surprise I found a deeper appreciation for this Indycar 'family' which, by one view, is made up of little more than strangers who are bound by enthusiastic common interest and adept electronic communication. What I've found though, behind the facades of blogs and Twitter accounts and Facebook groups and Flickr albums, are people. 

People who are generous, funny, kind, sad, concerned, happy, involved, angry, creative, old, young, wise, naive... people. 

I'm glad to get to know you all (in varying degrees) and appreciate all of our interactions. I hope we help each other more than we know. I aim to do my part to continue making this Indycar family a positive place for years to come.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Am I not a fan anymore?

edit: As of October 27, 2011 the title of this post was changed from statement; 'I'm Not a Fan Anymore' to question; 'Am I Not a Fan Anymore?'. I felt the need to amend this title to better reflect the intent of the article rather than imbue a tone for the reader.

Dan Wheldon's violent end was an unwelcome punch that caught me already reeling from other jarring events recently which only gives me further pause to wonder just what in this world is of true value.

As an ardent follower of Indycar, I of course feel grief for Dan's death, his family, children, and wife he leaves behind, but in my case, it comes on the heels of other head-shaking and tragic events. 

Some nine days ago, in my relatively benign little piece of Indiana, another violent end of life came in the form of an inexplicable home invasion of a well-loved, local college professor in which the (still at-large) attacker critically wounded the wife and mother of three, then turned his attention to the husband who had come to fend off the attacker. In a scant matter of moments, the lives of the survivors violently altered and the life of the husband and father brutally taken from him by circumstances beyond their control. 

I feel that in many ways Wheldon's death was similar in that circumstances conspired ruthlessly and tragically to deal a swift, unexpected, and horrible end to a life, and yet different in that I feel a level of responsibility for Dan's death that I couldn't possibly for a random murder.

On Sunday morning, I was a fan of Indycar. A fan of the speed, thrills, color, legend, pageantry, and excitement that one could only get from this form of auto racing. I supported it with my dollars, energy, and enthusiasm. On Sunday evening, I have decided to not be a fan of this anymore. By my assessment, there is simply no need significant enough to justify the cost of life and limb.

I assign no blame to any specific person, place, or thing for Sunday's events, mind you, I simply choose to not revel in sports such as these any longer. I am saddened for the crews, drivers, fans, and many others who have given their lives for this sport. As a husband and father, I am especially saddened that the hole left by Dan's death is irreparable for his wife and two young children left behind. 

It all became very clear to me when my 7-year old son last night (while tucking him into bed) asked if Dan Wheldon had children. "Yes", I said, "two boys, a 3 year-old and a 7 month-old". My son's reply was all too lucid, ..."and they will never know their father". It was all I could do to not cry then and simply hug and kiss my boy. I said a silent prayer that he never has to deal with that sort of loss.

I don't consider my decision to be any sort of vindictive or misplaced assignment of blame, and it's not just Indycar I am forced to consider. Any form of commercialized 'sport' where maiming and killing occurs under the guise of entertainment, applies. Most sports actively work toward preventing incidents such as these, however, there is a constant and violent undercurrent that remains and I question the commercialization of these sorts of activities. It sickens me that the reason some 'sports' exist today is built solely on the attraction of their brutal and sometimes horrific nature.

While I can understand (and have experienced) that incredible attraction and exhilaration of seeing death-defying feats, I have no more love for it. 

I elevate my love for life and will treat it with even more respect and dignity. 

I fully expect the sport to go much as planned in 2012, but I for one won't be celebrating it they way I have before. I simply can't.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Missing Character

In the years of Indycar's decline (which I personally date approximately 1994 to 2009), several extrinsic events (not including the rise of NASCAR as well as other sports options) conspired with cruel timing to hasten its slide. With the myopia of hindsight, we see none of these events could be avoided yet the magnitude of their occurrence may very well have been underestimated. 

1. The Law of Diminishing Returns: An early economic theory notes the tendency of additional input units to reach a point where they have progressively less marginal effect. I was in college during the mid-to-late 80s and studying this very subject. As an Indycar fan then, I could see how the speeds were already effectively reaching their plateau when  driver safety and rapidly rising costs to produce more speed became ever larger obstacles to overcome, rendering the then-current formula unsustainable. I associate the natural occurrence of this progression for the loss of the 'speed-freak/mayhem fan' whose attention each year was strictly focused on surpassing the next speed (and danger) threshold. With no supporting evidence, I place this at approximately 5% - 10% of the fanbase.

2. Legend Retirements: In an two-year span we lost to retirement nearly all of the Indycar greats of the previous 30 years. Consider these retirements from May 1992 through May of 1994 listed with
Retirement date - Name (Indy 500 wins, Total USAC/CART wins, Total USAC/CART Season Championships) source:
May 1992 - Johncock (2, 25, 1)
Dec. 1992 - Mears (4, 29, 6)
May 1993 - Foyt (4, 67, 7) 
May 1994 - Al Unser (4, 39, 4), Rutherford (3, 27, 2), Mario Andretti (1, 52, 4)
Six incredible drivers, 18 Indy 500 wins, 239 total race wins, 26 National Championships, and considerable influence over the previous 30 years of Indycar forever removed from the racing fields. This sport, within just a matter of a few years was now, despite a fairly strong generation following those drivers, set up for a serious decline. Eventually this day would come for all these greats but to lose them within a 24 month span was a shock that the sport has yet to fully (if ever) recover. Again with no supporting evidence, I would estimate that approximately 20% of the fanbase was lost following the 1994 season.

Those two extrinsic factors, in combination with other major advents of the time; influx of lesser known (and numerous) drivers of foreign origin, poor management of CART, fractious divide from the formation of The Indy Racing League, and more professional sports options to command viewers' attention, all lead and attributed to the current state of Indycar.

"Why do I mention all this?", you ask.  Now with the talk of what may be the most recognizable driver in the series on the verge of departure from Indycar, there is a great deal of debate about just how important the drivers are in the equation of success.  I'd say very important, but one thing that has been around longer than the legends and continues to be here to this day, seems to be a second-rate piece of the puzzle and I couldn't disagree more.

The original star of this series, dating back to 1911, has been and, in my opinion, should be today, the car

How many of you instantly recognize the STP Paxton Turbine as 'revolutionary' or the Novi as 'brutish'? The virtues of the 'reliable' Watson roadster were well known. Old Calhoun, for feck sake, was a Watson with its own name. The cars could be as finicky and cantankerous as the chaps who drove them and we loved that about them. I still prefer those days to the uber-competitive, micro-engineered and soulless shells that have carried the drivers of the last 8 years. 

As we know, the vehicular options have been ever-limited since the late-80s and, in going from sport to entertainment, the vehicle in the equation has been neutralized to being a mere specification of the 'sport', rather than one of it's illustrious characters. To make the car one of the stars again will take some doing, but unfortunately not even as its upcoming iteration would be. Similar or identical cars simply isn't something the American public appreciates or wants. Just ask NASCAR. Not once have I heard how much someone likes all cars being the same. It not only eliminates some of the drama, it takes away from the enjoyment. 

In an age where Indycar needs additive solutions, not subtractive ones, and I fully understand there is a 'new car' in testing as we speak and that horse is out of the barn so to speak, we cannot miss the next opportunity (if there is one) to be more free and open. 

Make the cars wild. Make the motors amazing. Allow the engineers to come up with amazing solutions to the questions of limited amounts of combustible energy. Allow this platform to create a place the mass automotive manufacturers will want to pour resources into and elevate the value-cost quotient. Eliminate the significant reliance on the rolling billboard model (whose value is dropping every year, by the way).

Let Indycar be the place to reignite our country's passion for driving. 
Let Indycar give us new heroes and villains - cars included.

2012-13 is essentially giving us little different from 1997. 

2014 could very well be Indycar's last chance to roll the dice. 

What really is there to lose?