Tragedy at the U.S.500

28 July 1998

I was barely two months old when the magnesium framed Mercedes 300 SL flew into the spectator-filled front-straight grandstands at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. The impact and resulting magnesium fire killed 86 people. From all news accounts it was, by far, motorsports' darkest hour. The horror of the incident caused Mercedes to withdraw from not only from the 1955 24 Hour race but from motorsports altogether for many years.

Sunday's incident at Michigan Speedway does not come close to the number of people killed in France on that fateful day. None the less, losing even one life, is one too many. When a driver dies we, the fans, accept the news as part of the "occupational hazard" of racing. When spectators die, a time of remorse, reflection and reaction is required. The sudden emotional shift from gaiety and enjoyment to tragic horror is a roller-coaster that few should ever have to travel.

Ernest Hemingway once said that there are only three sports in the world: bullfighting, mountain climbing, and autoracing. All the rest are just games. How true that statement rings. Nothing is more beautiful, in the sporting world, than watching a racecar traveling at 10/10ths apexing a corner. Keeping the car under control; doing battle with other drivers, as well as the racetrack. It is a continual painting of kaleidoscope blurs cast upon an asphalt canvas. Sadly, we are reminded that for everything beautiful, there is a dark-side. On Sunday, that dark-side revealed itself and took the lives of three spectators.

How should we react? Time will reveal the emotions, as well as the answers. No doubt there will be those in the mainstream media who will decry the senseless tragedy of a sport they do not understand. Yes, the deaths are senseless, but please tell me what sport or game does not present inherent dangers to players or spectators? As two examples, a young boy in Arizona who was killed last week by a stray baseball, and a hockey fan was killed last year by a stray puck. These examples will not serve as comfort to those family members who lost loved ones on Sunday, but hopefully will serve as some kind of framework for reviewing the incident.

Certainly one of the questions that will be asked of Michigan Speedway owner Roger Penske is that of the catch-fencing height. Well, how high should one build a catch-fence? At the Indy 500 one year, an incident involving Roberto Guerrero launched a tire into the grandstands, killing a man on the top row as it departed the massive arena. That would be roughly 150 feet in the air vertically and 200 feet horizontally. From an engineering standpoint it is possible to build, but is it practical? If motorsports comes underfire for lack of safety then baseball and hockey as well as golf should be scrutinized. This is not to say that improvements in safety are not warranted. But let's keep things in perspective at the same time.

No doubt the finger-pointing has already commenced. The blame game will not bring back the dead. A resolute reaction for logical safety improvements will be the best way to honor these three people. Let's hope the din of outcry does not muffle common sense answers.

David Treffer -- The Auto Channel

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