Racing is as venomous as a snake. This makes victories all the more sweet. Just to know that you have taken on the serpent, through its twists in condition, turns of fate and slithering of mishaps, is sweet. You have taken the creature by hand and survived the struggle to come out the victor. Conversely, when the snake strikes, its tragic venom spreads to the racing world rapidly. It makes us realize that our front-age heroes still walk in the ill-fitting suit of mortality.
I couldn’t shake the Allen Simonsen tragedy during the 24 hours of Le Mans this past weekend. The few captured images replayed themselves in my head. During the race, I tried to flip through some of my favorite channels to see something else. This would prove to be a vain attempt. Velocity was airing its “Killer Years “series and a documentary on the tragic 1955 Le Mans race. I would be caught like a deer in headlights. I thought to myself: “How could they be so prophetic in their programming?” Just moments after an actual tragedy, we are reminded of how cold and brutal our beloved sport can be.
The well-chronicled David Purley footage was always gut-wrenching, watching him try with all his might to pry his friend, Roger Williamson, from the flames of an overturned car. He would beckon for help from officials, but to no avail. They would be powerless to help and his adrenaline would be overcome with weeping because he was utterly helpless in saving his fellow driver, whose screams he could hear through the crackle of the flames.
Other drivers would pass by, seemingly uncaring, but actually unaware. Technology and safety had not progressed beyond asbestos and helmets – nothing was fireproof. Equipment was barely superior to what the average spectator could buy over the counter. The snake had many spots to strike and repeatedly, he did. Williamson, Donahuge, Clark, Peterson, Cevert, Marimon, Bettenhausen, Earnhardt, Wheldon and, as we see, the morose list still continues.
The families and fans have had to end their part of the racing spectacle. Still, the machine of motor sport rolls on without even a flinch. We have forgotten to take time to make heroes of the officials and the drivers that have risked their own lives trying to save their fallen comrades. A driver running to see about his friend has been reduced to a remorseful statement during an interview. I am not struggling with the commercialism of racing and I know that millions are tied up in each car. Saturday’s crash was just a reminder that our hallowed heroes are all susceptible to the snake. Despite the incredible strides in safety, every time we allow them to start their engines, we throw them into a pit. Many, thankfully, will survive. Few, regretfully, will succumb to the venom. We will watch next weekend’s events, as we always have, with expectation and excitement. At race’s end, we will hail a new or recurring hero and name him winner….or snake charmer.