The last Monday in May is Memorial Day. The Day before that, is, for gearhaeds and car racing fans, A High Holy Day. It is a day for us, like The Hajj is to a Muslim. It is on this day, Memorial Day, that The Indianapolis 500 is run, and occasionally on the same day, the Monaco Grand Prix will run.
For a car racing fan, Memorial Day is better than the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Finals all rolled into one, and the reason is simple: Football, baseball and basketball are games, and racing is a sport.
It has been attributed to Hemmingway, although no one seems to be sure who originated the quote. This provenance obscure in no way deters from the basic Truth of the sentiment:
‘Only mountain climbing, bull fighting and sportscar racing are true sports. Everything else is a children’s game played by grown men in costumes.’
You can say what you want about the skill of Michael Jordan, and there is much to be appreciated, but a simple, and undeniable fact is that if Mr. Jordan misses a crucial shot, he gets to take another one. When Willy Mays just got his second strike in the bottom of the ninth, he had another pitch coming. And if either of them, or Joe Montana or Wayne Gretsky missed it … well, there was always another game.
Back when Willy Mays was playing, the average of a Grand Prix driver being killed, and we mean outright killed stone dead, was in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 percent over the length of his career. And getting killed meant things like being trapped in a magnesium bodied car and burning to death, or being thrown from your race car at speed and being hurled headlong into a grove of trees like a hundred mile a an hour pinball.
The same thing still applies today, even with all the modern safety advances. Racing is serious business, and the bottom line is often written in blood.
The difference between Willy hitting it out of the park, and squibbing one off as a foul ball is a matter of millimeters and arc-seconds of force. Those same measurements can, and will be applied, every Memorial Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over a distance of five hundred miles, for a total of eight-hundred turns over three hours of time. There are no time outs. There is no half time. Yet we have seen racers like Rick Mears come within scant millimeters of a concrete wall at speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour, and do it lap after lap, hour after hour, and not put a foot wrong.
It literally shows the precision and eye/hand coordination of a brain surgeon – only it’s like doing the brain surgery on yourself.
Yeah, you think you know what it’s like. “I can drive,” you say. We’d have a tendency to disagree with you. Sure, everyone is taught to drive. And everyone is taught to write too, that doesn’t make you F. Scott Fitzgerald. And more to the point, driving isn’t racing.
A racer is undergoing stresses and strains that only fighter pilots and astronauts are used to. We’ve seen the instrumentation print outs, and they look pretty frightening. A race car driver will have a heart rate of between 170 to 175 beats per minute, and will sustain that rate for literally hours at a stretch. During pit stops, the driver’s heart rate will drop to a more “reasonable” 155 beats per minute. In close calls, near crashes, out of control moments, that sort of thing, a driver’s heart rate can spike into the 190s.
While their heart is doing this, their body is being subjected to nearly five Gs of lateral acceleration. The average human head weighs around 22 pounds, try holding up over a hundred pounds for an afternoon using just your neck.
All the while, the heat in the cockpit is around 130 to 140 degrees. Since they are riding in what amounts to a napalm-grade firebomb, it is advisable that drivers wear flame-retardant suits and underwear. It’s made out of a special cloth, and is three layers thick. It breathes about as well as a garbage bag. Their helmets, although able to withstand a tank driving over them, get about as much ventilation as a diving helmet.
You don’t think racing is a real sport? OK, fine, here’s what you do: Wrap yourself in three comforter blankets. Go into a sauna and turn it all the way up. While that’s happening, start running in place as fast as you can. Get your heart rate going at literally near tachycardia levels. When you get there, we’ll hand you a bowling ball. Now, keep running, and hold the ball out at arms length in front of you. Raise and lower the bowling ball by exactly five-and-a-half inches in each direction. Keep doing that for three hours. If you raise it too high or too low by more than 2 millimeters, we’ll take out a .45 automatic and blow your brains all over the walls of the sauna.
Doesn’t sound so easy now, does it?
Yet that’s what race car drivers are willing to do every Memorial Day at places like Indy and Monaco, and for scores of Sundays after that at places like Le Mans and Monza and Bathurst and Rio, come hell or high water.
They call it Memorial Day for a reason.
Photo from Flickr user BigTallGuy