Saturday, May 18, 2013

1939 Indy 500 - The Sport of Death

Auto Racing - the Sport of Death?
Life Magazine took a harsh line when reporting on the 1939 Indy 500, kicking their article off with the headline “145,000 Patrons Watch the Sport of Death at Indianapolis Speedway”. After reading that, one could be forgiven for thinking the Speedway hosted gladiatorial matches culminating with a Ben Hur style chariot race after the morning's bouts and executions had warmed the crowd up. Nobody can deny that racing is a dangerous business. In the history of the Indy 500 fifty five drivers, mechanics, and track personnel who have died during the race or practice. Death never has been satisfied to focus on participants, though. Ten spectators have been killed while watching the race and possibly the most tragic case is that of Wilbur Brink, a 12 year old boy who died instantly when the wheel of Billy Arnold's car bounded over the fence, crossed the street, and struck the youth while he played in the yard of his house.

Newsreel Stills of Floyd Roberts' Wreck
The 1939 race saw the death of veteran racer Floyd Roberts in the 106th lap, a death captured by newsreel cameras. It might be the humanization of death that spurred Life to make the assertion “With automobile testing moved to the safer proving grounds of the manufacturers, even hard-boiled sports writers now protest racing’s needless risks.” Of course Life's theory has a couple problems. Firstly, after making a statement that implies a broad consensus of the sport-writing community, they cite only one columnist (Hearst’s Bill Corum). Also they make the bogus assumption the purpose of the sport of racing is the testing of automotive product. I wonder if they'd also claim the purpose of baseball is the testing of clubs, football the testing of helmets, and soccer the testing of nets?

Still, it would be ignorant to pretend that racing didn't involve real danger. It’s easy to see the drivers as part of the machines they drive, at least until someone perishes. Every death brings calls for safety improvements, and even the geometry of the track itself has been modified since 1939 to help prevent fatalities. Nothing can make any race absolutely safe, though, and when the engines roar on Memorial Day weekend take a moment to think of the men and women who drive the oval. Remember, the specter of death always hovers over the Speedway among the cheers and gasoline fumes, waiting for the next tragedy.

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