Commentary

Death slows, never stops, racing

The California 200 and the California 8

Updated: August 16, 2010, 2:08 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

You can picture it.

Sun gone down and the blue dark just coming up, the cool falling on you and on the desert, the heat draining out of the day, stars and moon rising, the smell of the sage and those creosote bushes, the feel of your bootsoles on the sand and the gravel and the way the dust powders your skin as the trucks fly past, the lunatic roar of it when they come and go, that rumble up from the Earth, the lights and the noise blinding and deafening and then gone, the sudden quiet, that sudden vacuum of sensation, then you and your friends laughing that adrenaline laugh and the taste of the beer and the Mojave grit like copper on your tongue and then that next truck comes howling out the dark and the next and the next and the next and the noise and the lights and that sensation is why you came, like you're plugged in at last to something electric and generative, something frightening and alive, it's why you're out here on the edge of everything, out here on the desert, out here in the Big Empty northeast of Los Angeles.

[+] EnlargeCalifornia 200
AP Photo/Alex GallardoThe day after a fatal crash in California, an off-road vehicle passes the site.

Maybe that's what it was like to stand at the foot of the Rockpile on Saturday to watch the racers come and go in the dark of the California 200. Maybe that's how good it felt. Maybe that's why eight young people died there on Saturday night when a truck flew into the crowd.

The news story is here and here and here.

The laying of wreaths and the laying of blame are already well under way.

So -- short today, fast and sharp and heartbroken.

At off-road races in the deserts of the Southwest or on World Rally Championship courses through the forests of the Arctic Circle, fans will stand too close to the track. Fans always have. Fans always will.

It is up to the sanctioning body to keep fans away from the worst of the dangers, sure, but sanctioning bodies can't change human nature. Part of the tension at any racing event anywhere is between the fans' fundamental appetite for sensation and fan safety. Reptile brain versus frontal lobe. And it's been that way since the days of the Hippodrome.

The scolds and the politicians and our well-meaning national schoolmarms are unlikely to change that. Noises will be made, but nothing will be banned and no one will be banished and nothing much at the deep root of things will change.

Because it cannot change, it cannot be changed.

But speeches will be spoken, and rules that were once unwritten will now be written, and enforcements will be tightened a little and fingers crossed and hopes expressed and prayers mouthed and in six months we'll have forgotten it ever happened.

So it is worth remembering that even the worst accident in auto racing history, the June 1955 crash at Le Mans that killed more than 80 people and injured 120 more didn't stop racing entirely. Or even change it very much.

In our human ingenuity, we persist. And in our madness.

The applied science of racing safety is incremental, and those sanctioning bodies, from karting to NASCAR to Formula One are reactive rather than creative. Not only as a matter of practice or philosophy (i.e., you can't fix a problem until you know it's a problem) but as a function of the bottom line (i.e., "how much is this going to cost us?") and the balance of profit against life and limb. They will tell you otherwise, but that is an institutional lie. They do as little as they can until they have to do more. So a certain number of deaths is built in to the sport.

[+] EnlargeLe Mans crash
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty ImagesPierre Levegh moments before his fatal crash at the 1955 Le Mans.

That's not a moral pronouncement, or an ethical indictment of the profit motive, it is just a fact. As a society we've decided over the past hundred or so years that some reckoning of deaths is acceptable in our motorized entertainments. A few years ago in a project titled "Death at the Track," the Charlotte Observer tallied 260 fatalities across a little more than a decade of American auto racing, with the average number of deaths in the cars and the pits and the stands ticking by like clockwork at 22 per year. That's what we've all decided is acceptable.

It is this calculus of risk -- and the continuum of our decisions -- that makes us human. The risk of failure or of danger or death, the risk of trust and betrayal, the risk of North Korea or Iran or HIV or HPV or crank or the risk of our founding principles against the risk of a mosque downtown, the risk of whatever modern plague comes down out of the sky next is the steady state of humanity.

It is a perversity of our universe that those things that make us feel most sharply alive, those moments when we are most human and most vulnerable and most emphatically present in the present are the very things most likely to kill us. This is as true of war as it is of bullfighting or lust or mountain climbing or drug addiction or motor racing. In a world crowded with dangers, this is the terrible truth of our species.

Risk is everywhere. You can picture it.

So understand as best you can something about yourself and about the California 200 and about those eight young people lost forever in that alkali desert. As best you can, temper your thoughts today with compassion.

And understand that for some of us risking nothing is just another way to lose everything.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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