Should the Indy 500 Be Shut Down? Is Auto Racing Disrespectful of Human Life? [Repost from 2016]

Race Car in Pits File Photo

[reposted from 2016]

According to AP, there have been 66 deaths in connection with the Indy 500 site since 1909, including 40 drivers, 14 mechanics, nine spectators and a little boy playing in his own yard nearby. Additional deaths, of course, have occurred in other venues. The deaths have continued up to the current era, and have involved some of the most elite drivers, as has also occurred with stock car racing.

At a time when we need to be encouraging respect for human life and the development of a stronger conscience with regard for human life and the dignity of the human person, in the face of assaults upon respect for human life, it probably is a good idea to ban auto racing. Some first steps could include holding organizers financially responsible for any deaths or injuries, on a strict basis, with multiplying financial penalties added, without regard for supposed assumption of risk by spectators or participants.

Sentimentality and would-be tradition, especially in a sleepy setting like Indiana, not necessarily steeped in many other traditions, should not be an obstacle to changes. I myself like hearkening back to some old family connections with the race, which were nice in the themselves, yet that does not balance out with more important considerations and proactive steps to move forward.

I have mixed feelings about the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. My paternal grandfather, God Rest His Soul, built at least one race car that ran in the Indy 500, back in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. My father had early childhood memories of Eddie Rickenbacker coming to the house, the great World War I flying ace who developed a passion for auto racing and, at one time, owned the Indy 500. The family connection with racing would be interrupted when my grandfather passed on prematurely, in his late thirties, apparently from health-related reasons, when my father was only eight years old. Years later, a brother-in-law became CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and briefly had his company sponsor a car, from a racing team led by a racing legend.

While human life in any era is sacred and precious, there is, perhaps, a temptation to think that the deaths are part of a murky past with less sophisticated technology and lower safety standards, or related to the skill of a driver. The first death at the race was in 1911, in the very first race, when a mechanic was killed.

However, just five years ago, Dan Wheldon distinguished himself as an elite driver by winning the Indy 500 for the second time, only to get killed in a crash the same year at another track.

Interestingly enough, my father, God Rest His Soul, never seemed to take people to the race, in my memory, although he and my mother did take me to qualifications once. (Ironically, the driver we saw on foot, standing near our bleachers, by coincidence was the racing legend who later had his team sponsored by the brother-in-law.)

But before I was born, my father did take some older siblings to the race itself, and there was a huge accident involving a large number of cars. Footage from the accident would actually be used in a feature film about the Indy 500. Real-world footage of the accident and its aftermath was embedded within the dramatized action of the film. As I watched that movie, as a rerun on a television, one of the older siblings came into the room, saw the accident, and said that he recognized it, as an accident that had occurred at the race he was taken to, years earlier, by my father. He remembered the iconic moment when, amidst the chaos, a wheel snapped loose and came rolling out of the chaos, continuing down the track at high-speed by itself, with no car attached.

Years later, my father and mother did attend at least one race when the brother-in-law’s company sponsored a racing team.

But, during that long hiatus, perhaps my father was quietly dissuaded from going to more races, after taking what were then small children to a race, only to witness a massive multi-car accident. More so than witnessing an accident, there also is the danger of spectators getting killed. In the modern era, in one instance, a wheel that broke off in an accident hurtled upwards and into the stands, killing a spectator completely at random, halfway up the stands.

It is unquestionably disrespectful to human life, and therefore un-Godly and un-American, to subject human beings to those dangers for something as trivial as a quasi-sporting event.

Arguments about technological benefits are unpersuasive. Technological innovations can be tested in other ways, in other settings, without the same issues arising in the same way. The competitive profit motive of auto racing and the purse might help instigate innovation, but that does not justify the loss of human life.

Actual testing tracks do not have to be built along the lines of the Indy 500. Indeed, the Indy 500 track, which originally was brick, and has corners reportedly banked for cars going less than 100 mph, is not necessarily suitable for modern test track purposes.

And it is not clear that we even need to use human drivers, in a cockpit, for modern testing of vehicles. It would be possible in today’s era to test vehicles, on remote testing tracks, with no actual driver behind the wheel, or with a driver who pilots the car remotely. The point is not that there should be races run that way. The point is, that if one argument for auto racing is that it could induce technological innovation, the response is that there are other ways to conduct the testing that are safer for humans.

An additional concern is the moral impact on moral conscience, from watering down the conscience by risking, or ending, human life for frivolous reasons.

One of the biggest challenges to human society in the current era, as always, has been to inspire the development of a stronger conscience in favor of respecting human life.

Terrorism; other forms of war; widespread prenatal child-killing (cast by its aficionados as the pseudo-clinical euphemism “abortion”); euthanasia; health care rationing; human trafficking; drug trafficking; permissiveness and sexual degradation; and other threats to human life and human dignity compound their initial impact by also besieging and undermining moral conscience.

We need a push to build a stronger moral conscience, in defense of human life, not efforts to weaken or water down human conscience. We do not need the would-be excitement, sentimentality, false rationalizations, or mere habit-building, associated with something like auto racing, to whittle away at the proper formation of proper conscience.

One argument sometimes raised, to promote quietism in the face of the threats auto racing poses to human life, is a generic, abstract idea of simply pushing the limits of something, of going higher and faster, and so forth.

The problem is, that argument rests on the notion that limits do exist in the first place.

The issue becomes, what limits are appropriate, and what limits can be pushed.

For example, football is now realizing that head-on-head contact is a limit that has to be ratcheted back, with a firm line drawn in the sand, because of the reality of head injuries and their ripple effects.

With some kinds of risks, there is no need to push limits, because the limits are appropriate.

For example, a few individuals have parachuted from an altitude so high, that it felt like they were in outer space. In broad daylight, they rose by balloon to an altitude so immense that the blue sky disappeared, and the black sky and stars came out. The first time that happened, the parachutist got to a point where he temporarily blacked out, and had to rely on the chute opening automatically.

The depths of the ocean are so bone-crushing with their water pressure that no human could survive without a heavy diving structure. Yet it would be foolish to deliberately push the limits of depth for scuba-divers, to the edge of where they could be killed. It would be frivolous to sell tickets to which whether somebody got killed scuba-diving, when they deliberately tried to go too deep.

Or, where limits exist, there might be other ways to push the limits, or to focus on pushing entirely different limits. For example, in football, there are other ways to deliver hits without causing concussions.

One concern should be whether, in some childish, emotionalistic way, anybody would think that the seriousness of deaths and injuries in auto racing somehow translates into seriousness of purpose, or makes the race more “important.” The opposite is true. The seriousness of deaths and injuries in the sport highlight how frivolous the activity is, when compared with the sacredness of human life and the seriousness of the deaths.

Even worse would be if there is a small subset of the population that actually ever got a sick thrill from seeing accidents and the possibility of death. In the Confessions of Saint Augustine, he describes a friend who apparently was addicted to visiting the “arena” as a spectator, which presumably meant gladiator fights or worse. The friend apparently was an otherwise normal person, perhaps even aspiring to being a Christian like Saint Augustine. The friend also knew that visiting the arena was something he should avoid.

Yet he found aspects of it addictive.

With regard to auto racing, one step that could be taken would be to make the organizers legally and financially responsible, under strict liability, for any deaths or injuries to spectators. One could try to argue that there is some assumption of risk by the victims. Yet that is not a risk that anyone should be allowed to assume, because no reasonable person could assume such a risk and still be considered reasonable. That is, no one in his right mind would think that sitting and eating a hot dog while a vehicle goes by at high speed is important enough to justify getting killed.

In the instance of the spectator in the late 1980’s killed randomly by a flying wheel, the widow reportedly sued for $9 million, then reached a confidential settlement.

Given financial responsibility and financial incentives, organizers would be in the best position to adopt better safeguards.

Another issue that might come up is whether some tracks or some circumstances are safer or more dangerous than others. There has been a driving death at the Indy 500 track as recently as the 1990’s, however.

On the other hand, if other tracks and other races are more likely to have deaths now, and if shutting down tracks one-by-one, from this point forward, is the way towards a gradual step-by-step ban, so be it.

For the Indy 500 itself, one added twist is the race’s spot on the calendar on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day, of course, has a focus on remembering and honoring our departed, including those who perished in military service defending the nation. Indeed, the Indy 500 features taps as part of its ceremonies, as well as an invocation by a religious figure. At a time when we remember the departed, and acknowledge those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the natural reaction should be to have a heightened respect for human life, and a heightened sensitivity to the realities, and loss, associated with death. Sensitivities to these values should be raised, not lowered. To do otherwise would be un-Godly and un-American.

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