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Opposite Lock: Martyrs of Motorsport

Featured Posts, Interesting, Racing | October 31st, 2011 by 6

It is with heavy hearts that we reflect back on the last few weeks of motorsport. First the death of Dan Wheldon who passed in …

It is with heavy hearts that we reflect back on the last few weeks of motorsport. First the death of Dan Wheldon who passed in a fiery Indy crash, then the death of Marco Simoncelli who passed after low-siding his MotoGP bike through a corner, subsequently being hit by fellow riders. Neither of these tragedies are part of the intended spectacle, and yet, in a world of speed and wailing motors, tragedy sometimes strikes. How do we reconcile our love of motorsport with the inherent risk it presents? How do we best remember these two racers, taken from us far too soon?

First of all, it is important to remember that when tragedy befalls motorsport – or any of us at any time – time truly stands still. Nothing else matters, but the welfare of the casualty, and suddenly we are all transported from the realm of entertainment back to reality. What matters most in life, is friends, family, and love. Surely the friends and family of Wheldon and Simoncelli are deeply morning the loss of their respective loved ones, and we would do well to keep them in our thoughts and prayers.



It’s been said that success in motorsport is 90% mental. That’s not to undermine the enormous physical demands of top class motorsport – but the case in point is this: racers are highly disciplined masters of control. In my limited experience behind the wheel, I most love the place that racing takes you. Your goal is fixed firmly in mind. Your body becomes loose and relaxed. Your pulse first quickens, then slows. Your periphery blurs and the landscape flies past. You’re in, “the zone.” Once you’re in the zone and you’ve found a rhythm, the laps melt away. You feel freer than you’ve ever felt, and the stress and demands of life are far from you. The zone is a happy place. The immense satisfaction found in pushing for tenths of a second is not unique to any discipline of motorsport – it is shared by all drivers and riders around the globe. Surely Dan and Marco passed doing what they loved the most – what sets them free.

Another observation we can make of racers is of their relentless drive to improve. A racer’s toughest critic is himself, or herself. No coach or team principal could ever convey the passion and ambition of a racer’s heart. A racer exists to win. The deeper you delve into racing, the more the details matter. Eventually a racer finds himself altering his diet, picking up specific exercises to strengthen and improve endurance on the track, and strange routines begin to surface – from pre-race abstinence to less than fresh underwear. If the general public had half the drive of racers – everyone would be sitting on a pile of success. Everyone would push for perfection in every detail, as racers push for the perfect lap. We can remember Dan and Marco for their endless quest for self-improvement and the bravery required of them to press on.


Dan Wheldon with wife

So how do we move on? How do we get back in our racing suits, or line up for tickets? We should not do so by striking the fallen from our minds, readily forgetful of previous lives lost. Perhaps the best way to move forward is to remember the past – the dedication and conviction of racers laid to rest. The great Aryton Senna comes to mind as a hero in a helmet. He gave everything, including his life to racing – and was loved for it. A large part of his earnings went to support the people of his home town in Brazil. His passion and pace on the racetrack inspired the hearts and minds of a generation. His brilliant driving still moves anyone who cares about motorsport. We can remember the racers we’ve lost for the lives they lived and laps they led. Life is a road hard travelled for most of us. Most of us can only dream of a career in motorsport. But the superhuman driving abilities of the world’s greatest drivers and riders inspire us to similarly be the best we can be. I believe that is why motorsport is important – because it exists solely to challenge possibilities, to break barriers, and to continually improve. We can return to the grid, or to the grandstands, cognizant of racing’s purpose, as a model of grit, self-discipline and determination. We can remember fallen racers as models of self-improvement.


Marco Simoncelli with colleague Fausto Gresini

Some will say that these men died in vain, that racing is an exercise in futility, the human equivalent of chasing your tail – but we know better. We know that these men died on a stage of bravery, doing what they loved – and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, while striving for perfection. Yes, racing carries with it a measure of risk, but so does most other activities in life. Statistics would argue that driving your car to work is far, far more dangerous that lapping the racetrack. Particularly if you live in Toronto. Many occupations carry of measure of risk, just as racing does. The men and women of motorsport want to go home to their families just as every other professional does at the end of the day. Furthermore, the deaths of racing drivers have significantly contributed to the safety of modern race, and road cars. There has not been a death in Formula 1 since 1994, the year that claimed the lives of both Aryton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. Thus lives lost in motorsport have also led to many lives saved.

The white flag is waving and so I must begin my final paragraph. At such a time of reflection as this, I’m also reminded of those who’ve passed in the greater sphere of racing and the automotive industry. A beloved family man and BMW guru, Jack Pitney, comes to mind. His passion for the automobile was contagious, as was his smile. I would like to think that all those who’ve passed with a penchant for cars and bikes are united in some kind of motoring heaven. A curvy cloud road leads them to a golden Nurburgring, continuously lapping with racing’s greats. Okay, that may be a bit juvenile, but there is no doubt that these men and women live on in our hearts and minds. They continually inspire us to be the best we can be, to strive for perfection, to persist until the checkered flag. Dan and Marco, rest in peace.

[Photos credit:
1 - http://www.automobilemag.com/features/racing/1004_us_f1_the_winning_formula/photo_00.html
2 -http://www.playerwives.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/zimbio.jpg
3 - http://www.asphaltandrubber.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Marco-Simoncelli-Fausto-Gresini-MotoGP.jpg]

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  • Tim Hovey R

    Fine tribute. Well written. May the families, friends, and all who were touched by these two men find some level of comfort in the fact that they died doing what they loved.

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  • Giom

    Great perspective Shawn. This also reminded me of the Toyota test driver that died near the Ring on his way from testing on the circuit. (In the Lexus LS-f, if I’m not mistaken.) The bottom line is, on or off the circuit, the automobile is a dangerous piece of equipment, but speed is the mistress. The danger is always present.

  • Pazzi

    Good article… today is the anniversary of Greg Moore’s passing in the 1999 CART season finale!  I remember as a child, hearing that Gilles Villeneuve passing on… or later on, Ayrton Senna.  Courage to those who continue on dealing with their loss.

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