Friday, February 16, 2007


I watched on YouTube a gruesome and probably inevitable video: a compilation of Formula One racing deaths. At first my interest was, in spite of better judgment, juvenile and prurient. Ooh, crashes.

And I remembered the excitement I felt as a kid going to races and hoping for a crash. And when a crash began, let's say in a race of modest, open-wheel Formula Fords, with one car seeming to slowly lose grip with the wet track on a sweeping left-hand turn, the rear giving way, and it's a yellow car, a beautiful raincoat yellow with a red-and-black-and-white Champion Spark Plugs sticker and a number 17, and what is going to happen to this bright and beautiful thing now that it's lost grip with the surface of the planet, this pretty, fragile, angry thing in the rain, with the white helmet of the sweating and bewildered man inside, struggling against chaos and fear; and behind him there's a car that's green and blue and it says Valvoline, and the yellow car has red wheel rims whose spinning ceases in the skid so now you see the lug nuts and the bright, white GOODYEAR on the tires and the green and blue car slams into it, the nose all crumpled now from this brusque, perverse encounter with the misshapen and delicate – intimate – parts in the rear – exhaust pipes, brake light, suspension and wing buttresses and now everything's fucked up and the yellow car has been jolted off its tenuous orbit around the corner and onto the wet, green grass and it's zigging and zagging, trying to cut across and rejoin that winding ribbon of asphalt where its adversary is limping along lamely, nosewing askew and engine whining for a lower gear.

I loved this. And it seemed so evidently to be essential to the appeal of car racing, at its very aesthetic foundation – control erupting into chaos, mystery mixed up in beauty – that I wasn't the least bit ashamed of it and one morning at the track declared to my dad that I couldn't wait to see some crashes.

He said nothing at first but fixed me with a withering stare. He raised his finger.

"We don't come to races to see crashes," he admonished. "We come to see racing. Crashes can be very serious and the drivers can get very hurt."

I hung my head to ponder my shame and what it all might mean.

I thought guiltily about the drivers. Like it was me who might hurt them just by wishing.

And tonight, watching the video, those early feelings were reawakened, the child's diabolical pleasure in destruction and then of course the guilt. And it struck me that you really can't parse it all out after all. It's a carnal sport. Awful, nauseating, poignant, beautiful. The colors and the wheels. Fire. The ferocious, howling cars. The swooping lines they follow; blood. Vomitous splatters of oil and gas, of extinguisher foam. Men in fire suits and helmets, tempting death. And crowds, standing, cheering, waving. Signs, words, Marlboro, Shell.

And the worst accident of all is there, in real time and in slow motion: the South African Grand Prix in 1977, Tom Pryce hitting a teenage track official who was scurrying across the track to aid a stricken car. Pryce's front wing clips the boy, whose body seems to disintegrate a bit and flips many times end over end, straight up about forty feet in the air. The fire extinguisher the boy was carrying hit Pryce in the head and partially decapitated him and then was sent flying who knows where. Pryce's car kept going, banging into a side rail, crossing the track and then exiting it, onto the grass, but not to get back on again.