THE ELEGANCE AND AGONY OF SPEED SPORTS

The Monday morning paper reiterated what I had repeatedly heard Sunday on television and radio and read about on the Internet. Dan Wheldon, 33 years of age, died at a hospital of injuries incurred in a fiery 15-car pileup during Sunday’s Las Vegas Indy 300. He won the Indy 500 for the second time on Memorial Day weekend 2011. Wheldon left behind a wife and two young sons.

Another newspaper story was less visible but caught my attention. The sub-headline: “Jockey injured, horse euthanized.” The report read, “Jockey Eddie Castro suffered a hairline fracture of his LI vertebra in a spill on Saturday at Belmont Park in New York. The New York Racing Association jockey advocate said there was no resulting compression on Castro’s nerves and his spinal column remains aligned. It is unlikely Castro will need surgery. Castro was injured when his mount, Royal Brush, broke down in the fourth race. Royal Brush suffered a fractured left front leg, and was euthanized.”

A list of 26 drivers who have been killed in IRL, NASCAR, CART, and Formula One races in the past 30 years was positioned next to the newspaper account of the Wheldon wreck. My cursory research into jockeys killed in races in the 21st century turned up 23, but I can’t vouch for its accuracy. Further, no telling how many racecar drivers, horse racing jockeys, harness racing drivers, and horses, have been badly injured in competition.

Auto racing and horse racing have avid followers who appreciate the sports for a variety of reasons. But the realization is always there that danger lurks owing to the fact that speed is the object. Car racing and horse racing can be made safer but not safe. It takes guts to make your living as a pilot in either endeavor.

In discussing the Wheldon death, a cable television announcer appeared to be searching for something to say when she asked a sports expert for an explanation of why drivers risk life and limb. He ventured that money is a major reason, but then added, “because that is what they do.” That is what I thought after Eight Belles perished on the Churchill Downs track after she finished second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Nonetheless, all true fans of car racing or horse racing periodically ask themselves why they support a sport in which a pleasant day at the track can quickly turn disastrous. The cognitive dissonance can be overwhelming in the wake of an incident involving Dale Earnhardt, or Dan Wheldon, or Michael Rowland, or Barbaro…

Some of us keep coming back time and again on the thinking that the good far outweighs the bad.

Maybe.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

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