The Luck Factor

I was watching a replay on SPEED of the Nationwide Series race from the recently-flooded Nashville Superspeedway (which didn’t take anything like the hit the downtown Fairgrounds track did—and BTW, that place is a historic landmark so if only for that reason it must be restored, though you watch the city leaders there simply abandon it instead). Early in the race, Michael McDowell blows a tire and collects the wall, ending his night. My first, indeed default reaction, was “Kid’s got no luck at all.” Actually, in some ways he does; recall if you dare his devastating crash at TMS. If you don’t recall or haven’t yet seen it, click here but be warned: it’s terrifying.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the luck factor. Obviously, it can become an intellectual cul-de-sac if one so allowed, the what-if-ing of racing history. If Eddie Sachs had ignored the cords showing through his tire at Indy instead of pitting late, he might have finally won the 500 and A.J. Foyt might (I stress might) only have been—only!—a three-time winner, and maybe Sachs would have retired in victory lane instead of starting the 1964 500 that took his life along with that of Dave MacDonald. Maybe. If.

So is what we call luck a matter of consequences of decisions we’ve taken? Maybe so, in part at least. It may also be a matter of how we arrange hindsight in our minds.

And yet we can point, at least in motorsports though surely there are analogies throughout life, to those moments when something intangible appears to shadow some people, in certain circumstances. McDowell’s one example. There are many others. Just staying with what we now call the Nationwide Series, there was a driver with the second most ironic name ever in the sport, in my humble opinion, Charlie Luck. It seemed that whenever something happened on the track, poor Charlie found himself in the middle of it. He dropped off the circuit and I sometimes wonder what became of him.

Or Joe Mihalic—one of the most talented drivers I have ever seen, and I’ve seen most of the ones who’ve mattered since the 1960s; folks, there’s a legend in auto racing wherein Joe actually won a major race while missing the left-front tire….It’s true. I was there at Heidelberg when he did it. I watched him lose that tire; he simply ran the cushion and crushed the field, as a matter of fact. Even today, another technical age in which pony-wheels on the left front are common, it’d be damn difficult even in a short race; Mihalic won the 1963 Tri-State 150 after losing the tire just past lap 50, something like 100 laps on a track somewhat larger than a half-mile. There was never any question about his talent, or bravery. He also survived one of the most awful flips anyone at that track had ever seen, doing endos down the back chute, getting tagged by other cars along the way; he got out, made it all the way home in his family station wagon before the pain in his back motivated him to the hospital….you guessed it: Broken. But he came back, won more races, then made the move south to NASCARland, where despite his talent and endless hard work, he was often the victim in accidents that broke his independent operation. I loved his Monte Carlo #61, the Pittsburgh Someplace Special, which was the C of C moniker for the city then, and have always thought that if one of the factory teams had taken a chance on him, he would’ve broken through and won races. That’s someone else’s fault, not Mihalic’s.

Davey Allison, of happy memory, might be another example. Consider this: He won the Winston and then crashed. Couldn’t even go to Victory Lane afterward. Went to the crash house instead. And let’s not even talk about the manner of his passing. Nor Alan Kulwicki’s—he wins the Cup in thoroughly dramatic fashion, final race of the season in Atlanta, only gets to carry it for a couple of races the following season before his plane crashes near Bristol.

You may think I’m laying on the death motif here a little thick. I didn’t even mention Pete Pania, whose fatal I’m told I witnessed, though I was only two at the time and have only the faintest recollection of it today: he flipped just past turn two at the very end of the race, landed with the roof facing traffic; the track was a brown fog of dust, and so of course another car shot through the cloud at full-bore, caught Pania’s car straight into the roof, killed him pretty much on impact.

Now that, folks, is luck. Bad luck.

Pania’s crew members knew my father through shared work at Heppenstall’s mill. They asked him over that following winter whether he’d like to replace Pania. He brought the subject to my mother.

And so, bang went his racing career, and mine, not in my case that the industry’s lost anything at all (my dad, however, would’ve been good behind the wheel; he had a sweet touch in day-to-day driving but always used his head, and preached the same to me). As I think about it now, she was right. He’d soon start having coronary trouble which racing would only have exacerbated, a fact I’d later witness at first hand when my wife and I saw a bomber driver at Florence Speedway in KY have a heart attack at the wheel under caution, collect the wall, and die before our eyes. Today I think maybe my mother extended his life, at least, and if so then fo a miraculously long time considering he’d live untill 1993 after a total of thirteen heart attacks and at least three strokes.

He had the good luck of resilience, an incredible will to live, and of his marriage to someone who honestly was looking out for his interests, whether he believed that or didn’t.

But I digress: it’s an unfortunate fact in motorsports that bad luck can literally be fatal. Bad timing, or acts of providence or divinity, place your bets, place your bets. Drivers do, every time they strap in. Luck, or Providence, etc., remains entirely out of their control. That they know this and still start their engines is all the bravery they’d ever have to demonstrate. I’m already convinced. Still, if in the end you find luck at the corner of Preparation and Opportunity, and luck turns out to be a crackhead with running sores instead, that, dear folks, is just bad luck. It’s part of the collective human rhythm that binds us.

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About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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