About Le Mans 2011: Two Horrible Crashes and A Lesson About Motorsports

SPEED is broadcasting live coverage from Le Mans, and after the two jaw-dropping wrecks involving Alan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, I’m compelled to recall the history of this circuit as well as a basic fact: This track is incredibly fast, and anyone is subject over twenty-four hours to castastrophe, as has now happened with the Audi team. Of course, it’s most people’s dream to take a high-powered car on an open stretch of road and see just how fast it will go. That was the intent with the Mulsanne straightaway; in the days of factory teams with unlimited budgets and essentially no rules to speak of, 240 mph was not unheard of on the Mulsanne. Even now, with the kink, speeds are astonishing, and when anything—at all—happens, the effects are frightening. Two very fine drivers involved in massive accidents—that says much of what you need to know about Le Mans.

Of course, it has a long, rich history. Its status as a world-class event goes without question. As you see, however, that history is not without blood. 1955 is the major example; think about the uproar that would happen if the same type of accident occurred today. It would be furious. A hood came off and sliced through the mainstretch grandstand rather like a Frisbee with teeth. Still, racing persists despite 1955 (and 1964, 1973 in the US when so many great drivers died and were injured). For one, I’m happy about that; my life would be much emptier without it, that’s for certain. Having said that, I’m also well aware of the risks involved. It would be callous to write that the reward of excitement outweighs the reality of risk. Also that would be wrong. I don’t feel that way at all. Rather, drivers, crews, and fans agree together that this particular reward, this tenor of excitement, means more than the risk. Risk is not an end; excitement is. There is, I promise you, nothing like seeing the two best drivers (or more!) make the last turn and head toward the checkered flag side-by-side (-by-side, etc.). Who wins? Hold your breath—

To me, that’s racing. That’s its essence. Not the wrecks. I do wish that people who enjoy accidents would quit going to auto races. They’re in the stands, though in smaller numbers than you might think. But they’re there. Once at Eldora Speedway during the World 100, a “fan” one row below watched the same huge wreck I saw, but he yelled, “Good! I hope somebody died!”

To be honest, I should’ve called the announcer’s attention to this idiot and gotten him bounced. But I lost my shit on him instead; today I chalk it up to the amount of inebriation one needed to achieve to withstand some of the attendees there. Some are among the nicest people I’ve ever met. No, seriously. Quit laughing. But then there are people like that—a minority, I’m happy to say.

Seeing McNish’s crash, I’m amazed no one behind the Armco barrier was badly injured. It looked like a number of photographers and officials were right behind the point of McNish’s impact.

There is a lesson to be learned: all of us know that drivers, and others, can get hurt at the track. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been “sent for” as a fan; for example, somewhere I have photos I took at the late, lamented Sunshine Speedway from the track. No, not near the track. On it. Standing with some crew guys behind some thick wooden pylons that wouldn’t come anywhere close to stopping a late-model at approaching 100 mph. I didn’t really think about that then. I do now. Watching those photographers literally running for their lives, I think that if I were there now, I could’ve been standing there. But would I go? You bet.

Thrill outweighs risk. Just minimize the risk. That’s all you can do.

Thankfully McNish walked away from his crash, though Rockenfeller left the scene by ambulance. Here is the video from SPEED involving his wreck. No word yet on his condition but it is not believed to be criticial; of course, I hope that’s true. I certainly, obviously hope we’re all done with that for this year. Now it’s time to see who wants it more over the longest haul of them all.

(Note: something more specific about motorsports and mortality coming later.)

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About johnwylam1957

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