For love of burning rubber

Auto racing is about speed and hot chicks and cool sunglasses, yes. But it's also, in a very real sense, about life and death.

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On days like this I wonder why I watch auto racing, why I think about auto racing, and, yes, why I love auto racing.

Let me start out with a disclaimer. I don’t fit the profile. I don’t like football because it’s too violent. I’d sooner sit through a “Joanie Loves Chachi” marathon than go hunting. And I do not now nor have I ever owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd album.

My infatuation with burning rubber and six-point safety harnesses started when I was, oh, about 8. I found race drivers, like firemen and astronauts, heroic and adventurous and just plain groovy. Cool sunglasses. Hot chicks. And exhaust so loud you had to wear earplugs. What could be sexier? At first I watched anything that moved fast, including NASCAR stock cars, but I soon gravitated toward Formula One Grand Prix racing. The cars were exotic. The race tracks unpronounceable. And the drivers raked in more than Tom Seaver. I was hooked.

And sure, while I like a good crash — one that ends with a driver strolling away from a mangled hunk of wreckage — as much as the next guy, I’ve really come to appreciate the sheer improbability of keeping a car on the track. I was once chauffeured on a couple of hot laps by former world champion Emerson Fittipaldi. As my fellow journalists held on to their seats and their lunches for dear life, I watched with rapt attention as he finessed the throttle, tapped the brakes and danced on the fine line where friction kept centrifugal force at bay. All while entropy — in the form of a punctured tire, a spot of oil on the track or another driver trying to occupy the same space at the same time — threatened to throw this delicate equation out of balance.

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And then came that decisive moment when it seemed that the car was going too fast, the road was too narrow, the wall too near. But Emmo’s cool. The wheel shimmies, the car slides, the line changes, and as surely as Nicolas Cage can dodge a fusillade of semi-automatic fire and secure the chemical weapons, disaster is averted. Whether you watch it from trackside or feel it through the seat of your pants, this dance with disarray is as beautiful and life-affirming as anything that Balanchine ever created.

But I guess my attachment to this cruel sport goes deeper than my adrenal glands. Sad to say, but auto racing taught me about death. Even before I hit puberty I learned that Great Moments in Auto Racing had its dark side. During fifth-grade geography class I buried my head in Jackie Stewart’s autobiography, “Faster.” Again and again, I followed him from funeral to funeral, and hoped against hope that the slow Italian ambulance would somehow get his friend Jochen Rindt to the hospital on time.

And before long, I became one of the bereaved. Almost three decades later I can still see Roger Williamson’s March, upside down and on fire in a Dutch sand dune, and Williamson’s friend David Purley struggling in vain to flip the burning car over. Or Mario Andretti, only hours after fulfilling a lifelong dream by winning the world championship, heading to the hospital to find out that his friend and teammate Ronnie Peterson suffered not only a broken leg but burns to his lungs as well. Or the time that Gilles Villeneuve, spurred by his rivalry with his teammate, headed out for one last hellacious qualifying lap, only to come upon a blind corner and a slow car.

No, I never met any of these men, but I felt each loss as profoundly as if it were my dog or my Uncle Mike. Every solemn headline, every tragic videotape was followed by real tears and the rest of the Kubler-Ross routine. No, I don’t recommend this as a rite of passage — auto racing therapy? I think not. And all things considered, I’ll probably be happier if my own son becomes a WWF fan. But all those sad and beautiful moments, those early lessons about how life is precious and fragile and random and unfair, they made me a different person. And, even on a day as dark as today, I’d like to think a better one.

Allen St. John is the author of "The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes at the Super Bowl" and "Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument"

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