Of Fast Starts and Endings That Come Too Soon
by Emily Wheeler, USAArticle is written by and copyright (c) 1999 Emily Wheeler, Capitola, California, USA.
"Attention. Attention, please."
Both of us got out of bed to work at the track last Saturday. While I would make photocopies in the media center, he would participate in qualifying for the Monterey Grand Prix. Our paths, most likely, would never cross, although we would occupy the same plot of land in the middle of a dry lake on the outskirts of a former military reserve.
"This is John Stornetta, General Manager of Laguna Seca Raceway."
As I was waking up - too late - rushing my dog around the block, and sudsing frantically in the shower, he might have been donning his Nomex overalls, checking his ride, and wondering where he'd wind up on the grid. As I raced south on Highway One toward Laguna Seca, in my mother's green Land Rover, he began practice laps in a red-and-white, shark-nosed CART missile.
"I have an important announcement."
As I made my way to my parking place, and marveled at how well I'd done, he was hurtling toward Laguna Seca's Turn 8, more commonly known as the Corkscrew. As I wondered why the pair of white Accords, tagged "Official Track Vehicles" with flashing yellow roof lights, were blocking the access road to my right, he too might have been wondering what was happening. As I wandered through the paddock, curious as to the nature of the huge crowd gathered around the shining silver Mercedes-Benz trailers of the Marlboro-Penske team, he was riding his last race in the back of an ambulance.
"I regret ... that I have to make this announcement."
I stopped on the sidewalk just before the footbridge that crosses over the start-finish line, wondering why the usually strong, deep tones of the General Manager's voice faltered and cracked over the crowd. Strangely, the people milling around me stopped as well, as if entranced by his halting voice. An uncomfortable silence enveloped the immense crowd gathered for the track's largest annual event.
"We have just received word that Marlboro Team Penske driver Gonzalo Rodriguez has succumbed to injuries sustained in his crash at Turn 8 during this morning's practice."
"Please join me in a moment of silence."
John Stornetta needn't have asked, except to the woman next to me who repeated, "Oh no. Oh no. Oh no…". As the stunned hush continued to paralyze the crowd, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout the paddock, and a group of drivers gathered just beneath the corner of the bridge where I stood.
Moments later, the regular track announcer informed us that the remaining CART drivers had unanimously decided not to continue with qualifying out of respect for their departed comrade. The green flag would drop on schedule at 12:45, but the track and pit lane would remain silent and empty for Gonzalo Rodriguez. Another eerie silence enveloped the crowd, and the brightly shining sun suddenly seemed quite inappropriate.
The rest of the day's events were put "on hold," including my afternoon with the media center's copy machine. I headed back to the Land Rover and left for home along with the rest of the Saturday throng.
As always seems to be the case, Rodriguez appeared to be on his way to better things. He left the European Formula 3000 championship in second place, having won his last race in Monaco only four months ago.
Villeneuve, Ratzenberger, Rindt: why does it happen so often in practice? Is it the lack of traffic? Drivers entering and exiting the track at different times? Excessive speeds reached in qualifying trim while getting used to the track? After all, Rodriguez was a CART newcomer, having started his first race in Detroit only a few weeks ago.
On the way back to the parking lot, a nearby man wondered briefly if the race would be held on Sunday. I assured him it would. Racing is theater: the show must go on. The CART Grand Prix of Monterey commenced as scheduled Sunday afternoon, in the tradition of David Coulthard taking over where Ayrton Senna left off after that fateful weekend at Imola five years ago.
It seems obscene, doesn't it? Disrespectful, too. How can people hold, let alone watch, something as trivial as a motor race after witnessing such tragedy? But, like a freight train without brakes, it couldn't be stopped: the grid lined up; the points counted; the podium filled. It's all a bit silly in the face of death, especially of one so young and promising.
But maybe it isn't silly. Maybe it isn't even disrespectful.
Last weekend at Laguna Seca, motor racing was something bigger than a bunch of men driving around at breakneck speed. All of us who witnessed the Monterey Grand Prix were reminded that motor racing, like all great human pursuits, is really about humanity's attempt to conquer its deepest fears. We are attracted to these events for the same reason the Romans watched leather-clad gladiators tear around dusty tracks in unsteady horse-drawn chariots: we love watching others, braver than us, take unimaginable risks - and what we really love is watching them succeed. If they can survive such dangerous events, we ordinary folk will certainly be OK.
But, like Rodriguez, Senna and Clark, sometimes they don't survive. With this, we all have to stare our deepest fear in the face. If they are mortal, there certainly isn't any hope for us.
This is why motor racing's show must go on.
Despite the terrible fears drivers must quash - like how to overcome the thought that the hurtling vehicle which crashed through the tyre wall and landed upside-down could have been any one of them - the racing continues on, proving these men are heroes in the most mythical, Herculean sense. To face humanity's deepest fear by driving at 200 mph around a concrete track is one thing; to face it after a real-life tragedy has taken place on that track the day before is quite another. This is when we ordinary folk really need our heroes to succeed: not just to prove that risk is survivable, but that we can face the inevitable and continue to live, to risk another day. So, despite their own fears, these modern-day gladiators take a breath, don their helmets, and put on their noisy show. We all face the fear; we all go on.
The racing community continues counting points and navigating tracks for the same reason we regular folk bring out the stock phrases and support groups in the face of death. We need normalcy. We need to stare death down and prove to ourselves that we can keep going in spite of it.
And maybe, for Gonzalo Rodriguez and all the others who have died doing what meant most to them, this is the greatest respect of all.
Emily is an ex- English teacher, who somehow became an accountant for a California Software Firm. She began following Formula One while living in the UK in the 80's, and happilly rediscovered it in the late 90's after stumbling across it on TV one Sunday afternoon.