I’ve been thinking about the last-lap crash between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin ever since the finish of the Auto Club 400. At some point, an old piece of racing history recurred: the 1958 Indy 500.
This story, however, has everything to do with the same race the year before. Bill Vukovich died in a crash coming off of turn two; the car did an end-over-end flip over the backstretch fence and caught fire.
But then along came Ed Elisian.
Vuky was always his guy. That’s all there is to it. When he saw what had happened, he did something few drivers would ever consider doing except in such a circumstance as this—he stopped his car, ran across a still-active track (in that there was no guarantee every driver had yet known about the accident), and got to the car. It was of course already too late.
None of us can know what such a moment is like. Years ago, I talked with Kenny Schrader; he told us the story of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death. He was the first person to reach the car. He said, “Soon as I looked inside, I knew there was nothing to be done.”
Whereupon we changed the subject. We love you, Dale.
Fast-forward to 1958. Elisian was determined (maybe beyond all reason) to win Indy for his mentor and friend. All during the long qualifying process, he was locked in a battle with Dick Rathmann for the pole. First one driver set a fast lap, which propelled the other driver to go even harder. Elisian was damned and determined to get that pole. And then the race. Elisian lost it on the first lap and triggered an enormous crash that took the life of Pat O’Connor. Again, from Wikipedia: “According to A. J. Foyt, Pat O’Connor’s car hit (Jimmy) Reece’s car, sailed fifty feet in the air, landed upside down, and burst into flames. Although O’Connor was incinerated in the incident, medical officials said that he was probably killed instantly from a fractured skull.”
Rivalry is one thing, but there must be moral limits.
Now, I love rivalries as much as anyone but again, this is auto racing and not chess. People can get hurt. Everybody knows. However: it’s time for cooler heads to prevail. Get intelligent, folks. You want to be in Kyle Busch’s position, or Dale Jr.’s, the one who gets to sail past the wreck and get the checkers. Again I say Joey Logano is not winning himself any friends on pit road these days. Yeah, racing is racing, but Logano’s coming off smelling like a well-used racing uniform lately. To reiterate: I suspect that Martinsville will be Get-Even Weekend on Logano. And I don’t want it to happen. I wish those concerned would simply get on with the racing, but of course we’re dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings who have egos, tempers, and as I said before, long memories.
For all that, though, I just want to go on record as saying that while this is an emotionally-driven sport, emotions must never overwhelm common sense. Logano drove it into turn four harder than the car and the track could withstand on that final lap, so I can’t say there was any intentionality in what happened on Logano’s part except that he pushed the situation harder than he should have. The irony was that he was racing Denny Hamlin.
I call the 1958 Indy 500 an allegory for this reason: There’s a point of no return. Ed Elisian proved that to us all. Let’s hope we never see anything like that event ever again. And please, drivers, remember the location of that moral, ethical line. This is necessary.