Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why the Race Track is Good – Part 2

If enough time is spent at race tracks a person can see a lot of things. I suppose the same can be said about ball parks, or golf courses, or even bowling alleys, but it isn’t the same really. The track is different. The track is made up of part competition, part fraternity and part 10W-30.

The risk-reward equation at a race track tends to be different than other sporting venues. The penalties for mistakes aren’t measured in yards or errors, sometimes they’re measured in lives. This potentially high price to pay makes triumph that much sweeter. Triumph itself is different. It can be a win, a podium, a best finish, or even a fastest lap. Sometimes triumph is just walking away unscathed.

I remember the first big accident I saw in person, it remains one of the worst I’ve actually witnessed firsthand. It was during the 1987 Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sears Point Raceway. I was thirteen years old. My father and I had made a tradition of attending this annual race and this was the third or fourth one we’d taken in. Bob Wollek, driving a Porsche 962, was leading the race. All eyes were on Bob as he entered a very fast uphill left hander when suddenly it all went wrong.

I can still recall seeing the underside of his German built racing machine as it careened through the air. I remember thinking to myself “I’ve never seen the underside of a race car before and this isn’t how I wanted to see it.” I was probably 80-100 yards away from the track, not my usual – next to the track head over the catch fence like a dog sticking his head out a car window– position. Watching an accident from that vantage point is a strange and surreal thing. Through a combination of distance and the wail of other racing engines the noise of the accident was inaudible. It was like a silent movie, except in color. I’ve never heard tens of thousands of people so quiet. The silence was deafening. The car ended up on its side and Bob walked away. Triumph.

Click the link and fast forward to about 5:30 to see the accident. Or better yet watch the whole seven minute clip and see, or reminisce about, how racing used to be. Keen eared listeners will recognize the announcer as Bob Varsha. He calls Formula 1 races for Fox/Speed these days.

Bob Wolleck was killed years later while riding his bicycle in Florida training for the Sebring 12 hours. He died in the pursuit of something he loved and was passionate about. May we all be so lucky.

Almost a decade later I was attending the 1996 Monterey Grand Prix at Laguna Seca with my friend David and his father. This was the heyday of CART (better known as Indy Cars). Sponsor money was flowing and the talent pool was deep. Drivers included Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and many more.

On the last lap of the race Bryan Herta, in the lead, was being hounded by Alex Zanardi as they approached the famous Corkscrew, a left-right downhill complex of turns. Passes don’t happen at the Corkscrew, period. They just don’t. There isn’t room. Herta knew this. The tens of thousands of race fans at the track knew. Everybody watching on TV knew. Evidently Zanardi didn’t know.

There wasn’t enough space for an overtaking move on the black ribbon of tarmac that defines the traditional racing surface as the two cars approached the corner. This didn’t deter Alex, he simply decided to use a non-traditional surface, the dirt. Indy Cars aren’t designed to drive on dirt. Something to do with ground clearance measured in millimeters, springs so stiff they are springs in name only, and tires the size of steam rollers with no semblance of tread.

His car bounded over the red and white striped curbing that borders the edge of the track and danced across the dirt for a brief moment before again bouncing over the candy cane striped curbing and back onto the asphalt into the lead. The crowd went absolutely out of their mind insane. Me included. I’ve never heard tens of thousands of people so elated and amazed. The cheers were deafening.

A few corners later Alex Zanardi took the checker flag and the victory. By finishing fourth place his teammate Jimmy Vasser clinched the championship. It was a triumphant day for Chip Ganassi Racing.

For years Zanardi’s overtaking move at the Corkscrew was simply known as The Pass. If I told a fellow race fan I was at the track when The Pass happened they knew what I meant. Some form of the following conversation would ensue:

“I was at Laguna Seca when Zanardi put that move on Herta”.

“No way! Was it as awesome to be there as I think”?

“No, it was awesomer”.

Clink the link to watch the last lap and to see The Pass.

To give an idea of just how extraordinary this overtaking maneuver was, think about this. I had a PC based Indy Car racing game at the time, complete with steering wheel and pedals. Laguna Seca was one of the virtual tracks available to choose from. After I saw Zanardi make The Pass in real life I tried the same thing in the game. It wouldn’t let me. Alex Zanardi made a pass so unrealistic that even video game designers, who live in the realm of impossibilities, didn’t consider it.

Five years later Alessandro "Alex" Zanardi lost both his legs in a horrific accident while competing in an Indy Car race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany. His triumph that fateful day was mere survival.

Memorable events that occur at the track don’t always live at either end of the emotional spectrum. Often times they don’t take place on the track itself.

In the late 90’s I was attending the Long Beach Grand Prix with a couple of friends. We took to watching a practice session by working our way around the circuit in order to view the action from different vantage points. At one corner a shy and bashful lass atop the grandstand decided the drivers needed something other than braking markers to focus on while they hauled their cars down from speed as they approached that particular corner. So she pulled up her shirt. Turns out she wasn’t wearing a bra. This wasn’t the action we had anticipated watching, but I don’t remember any of us complaining too loudly. My friend Don may or may not have a picture of said braless woman. I can neither confirm nor deny its existence.

The Grands Prix of Long Beach provided more than one interesting off track moment. On another occasion I was almost run over by Mario Andretti. The Mario Andretti.

I was walking through the paddock with my friend Chris. We looked up to see a golf cart coming straight for us. As the golf cart got closer it became clear the driver had no intention of altering his path, despite ample room on either side of us. We simultaneously leapt out of the way as if we were part of some choreographed musical. I don’t recall the exact conversation that took place immediately after but I think it went something like:

“We almost just got run over by Mario Andretti.”

“Yeah, we really did. He wasn’t going to move.”

“I can’t figure out if that was cool or if I’m pissed.”

“He’s one of only two American Formula 1 World Champions. I think that means it’s cool.”

“Alright, it’s cool then. He could have moved though.”

“I don’t think Mario Andretti is used to doing things he doesn’t want to do.”

In 2000 I was in Indianapolis for the return of Formula One to the United States after a nearly decade long hiatus. There were about ten of us there together. Friends from high school, college buddies, several of our fathers, co workers, Kid Rock…Okay, Kid Rock wasn’t actually with us, his box was above our seats on the inside of the front straight near the end of the pits. I didn’t know Kid Rock was an F1 fan. Maybe he wanted to be a part of the 200,000 plus people who saw the start of the first grand prix on US soil in ten years. Or maybe he too knows that the race track is one of the best places a person can be.

Our core group, with a little fluctuation here and there, attended the USGP for the next six years. We saw a lot of things over that time. We rubbed elbows with team mechanics and engineers while nursing gin and tonics (Bombay Sapphire, light on the tonic, hold the lime) at the bar inside the St. Elmo Steakhouse. We passed by Jackie Stewart while walking down a downtown sidewalk. He’s shorter in person than I imagined. And I knew he was short. We shared a table and had beers with two Australian guys at a very crowded patio bar. They were on vacation to the States and had structured their trip around the Grand Prix. We had never met before but our common love for motorsports had us taking like old friends within minutes.

Maybe that’s what it is all about. Maybe all the stuff that occurs on track is merely a backdrop. A backdrop for all the experiences and memories formed with friends and family while attending a race. Maybe that is what makes being at the track so good. Maybe. Or it could be the race cars.