Friday, May 28, 2010

Indy Who?

Why is there so much brouhaha over the Indianapolis 500? 'What', some of my friends ask me, ' is the big deal about a bunch of ugly race cars going around a track in circles? Driving a car isn't a sport, so what's all the fuss about?' What indeed.

My first instinct is to beat the questioning individual repeatedly about the head and shoulders, but that thought passes quickly. After a long sigh, I usually revert to my tried-and-true diatribe about competition, science, sports, death and salvation... sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. If the person to whom I am speaking goes all tharn and gets a glazed, vacant look in their eye, I just smile and say 'Never mind, you wouldn't understand.'

For me, the 500 was an important event that my Dad taught me about, him being an old skool racing fan as well. I reckon that would explain why, when Indy and Formula One ace Jimmy Clark was killed in the late 1960's, I went to grade school wearing a Black armband in tribute for an entire week. My friends thought I was nuts, and they were probably right. The 500 was always broadcast on ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' as long as could remember, although they usually interspersed it with weightlifting from Brussels and a soccer game from Caracas. Whatever... as long as they showed the bulk of the racing, we'd be OK.

But all that is relative, as nowadays the race has become (is still?) one of the great spectacles in sports, not just racing. Although a 1996 rift in the open-wheel racing world hurt the race badly for over a dozen years, The Indy 500 has reclaimed almost all the former glory it once had, but the nagging question remains: Why? Why does this race inspire and madden and possess drivers who yearn to compete and win at the hallowed facility? How does a team find the gumption to return year after year, sometimes qualifying and sometimes not, without hesitation or pause? Why do fans like me get crazy eyes on that Sunday morning, frothing with anticipation and making sure we have plenty of grub and beverages so as not to miss a minute of it? Why? WHY?!?!

Well, the answer is complicated. As a motorsports fanatic, I may not be able to offer an objective opinion, so let me dance around the hard-nuts of the thing to bring it into perspective. Naturally, there's the whole 'amazing science' aspect of driving a car at over 220 miles an hour on a closed course... speed, momentum, friction, aerodynamics, slip angles, traction, weight transfer, physics... everything that makes science fun and intriguing is present and accounted for. But it's more than all that.

A short story: in 1994, I was working as a technical specialist for NGK Spark Plugs while attending a humongous snowmobile race in Northern Wisconsin... in JANUARY. Average temperature in the bright sunlight was 35 degrees below zero. One morning I was sitting in the hotel restaurant with my co-worker, girding ourselves for a long cold day working in the pits, when in walks Stan Fox, one of the great Indy 500 competitors, who promptly sits down to chow down some oatmeal. Turns out he was also there for the snomo races, him being a Wisconsin native and all, and since I recognized him immediately and offered to buy him breakfast, he plopped down at our table and we spent the next hour talking racing.

Stan was one of those classic owner/drivers who spent an entire year getting ready to try and qualify and race in the 500, always short on funds but long on skill. He mentioned that he was struggling to get sponsorship for that year's race, but that come hell or high water, he'd be there. Sure enough, he qualified 13th and finished 13th, although he crashed out right at the end of the race. Not bad, but the following year he suffered a horrific crash on the front stretch, most notable for the outrageous image of his demolished car flying backwards, chest-high, the front end ripped off and his legs dangling in the wind, soon to be badly mangled. That race ended his chances to race at Indy again, but he continued to race road courses and sprint car tracks around the world until he lost his life in a New Zealand highway traffic accident while driving his own race transporter to yet another no-name race. R.I.P., Stan.

Does that make any sense? No? Hmmm...

OK, how about this: that same year, 1994, I was lucky enough to be at the track during practice sessions and snagged an Indy 500 'hard card' sponsor credential, which essentially gave me access to every part of the track, including the on-track 'hot pit' area. That morning, while I waited for my credentials to be approved, I stood in the scrum of humanity at the edge of Gasoline Alley, watching the teams and cars and mechanics and drivers walking in and out of the pits to the track. I met about a dozen guys and girls in that crowd, all talking about their favorite drivers and stuff, and after a while I went back to the offices and got my hard card. Instantly, I was special.... the famed 'Yellow Shirt' track security staffers provided me full access wherever I wanted to go, so the pits were my first stop. After checking out a number of teams, I strolled down that special walkway between the pits and the track, along with all the other race dignitaries, but as I got part way through, I happened to walk past the same group of people that I'd been hanging out with. They spotted me and immediately began shouting my name, laughing and whooping and throwing me devil horns and the whole enchilada. I WAS SOMEBODY, whereas less than an hour before, I was just a regular dude. Indy does that to people.

A side note: the team we were sponsoring failed to qualify that year, the first time Honda had attempted it, much to our disappointment... BUT I KNEW WHY. Turns out they'd been using the wrong type of spark plugs for an engine running on methanol, but the Japanese mechanics were too hard-headed to admit it and let the team down. I had mentioned the fact to the 'gaijin' mechanics who just shrugged because they weren't allowed to tinker with the engines. Lesson learned.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that sometimes, iconic events are hard to understand, their influence on people difficult to grasp, their meaning clouded in weirdness and superstition. For me, that day, walking with the kings of the sport in that place, even though I was just a sponsor and technician, I was a special person in a special place. I was in the clouds for the rest of that trip. It's probably a similar experience for the Super Bowl or the World Series, but those events are never at the same place. If you ever get a chance to visit and tour the track, DO IT. You'll find yourself watching the next race with a certain insider knowledge that is infectious.

This year's 500 will be really, truly special. Four women have qualified and are competing head-to-head with the dudes, a first. Multiple 500 winner Helio Castroneves will attempt to win for the 4th time, raising him to the level of the sport's few legends who have done the same. The field of cars and teams are well-matched and, although there are the inevitable favorites, the race has a habit of confounding the prognosticators and raising mid-pack drivers from relative obscurity to worldwide recognition. That's how it goes at the 500.

A quote once attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes like this: "There are only three true sports - bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and motor racing. Everything else is just a game." In the context of his life, that would likely have been true, perhaps not so much now. What remains as true as ever is that, like Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) said in the great racing movie 'Le Mans', "Racing is important to men who do it well. Racing is life... everything else is just waiting.'

I'll be watching the race on Sunday, hoping for a safe and exciting race, hoping no one gets hurt, and time-travelling back to when I was a kid, watching the race with my Dad on our black and white TV, thinking of grand things like racing and life. Only this time, it will be with fine pastry and mimosas!

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Start... Your... ENGINES!!!"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My (never sent) Response To A Religious Ben Stein Viral E-mail Forwarded To Me By My Dad.

Hi Dad… a word of warning: this is a rant, so please understand that when you send me religious e-mails, you’ll know in advance how I feel about the subject. I don’t mean for you to stop sending them to me, but you should be aware of my opinions. If you choose not to read and understand my point of view, well, that is your right, but please don’t hate me for having a perspective that differs from yours. That said…

Sorry, but I think Ben Stein is full of crap. This country is not atheist, no one wants it to be and he is totally wrong for thinking or saying any such thing. In this country we have freedom OF religion, which also means freedom FROM religion, if we so choose. Our nation was founded as the result of the Church of England forcing their doctrine upon people who chose not to bend to their teachings and decided to leave rather than have someone else’s beliefs foisted upon them. Mr. Stein better read up on his history, as well as The Constitution of the United States of America. I carry a copy of it with me every day.

What Ben Stein is saying MAY relate ONLY to those who choose to agree with his particular brand of religious philosophy… what about Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Rastas, Rosicrucians and all the other faiths that don’t follow the teachings of Christianity? What about the millions and millions (like me) who choose NOT to believe at all? And that baloney about Christians getting pushed around is ludicrous… this country is filled with Christians, and they are getting radicalized by a minority of fundamentalists who want to turn this country into a theocracy.

Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina on godless people and homosexuals infesting the US… Pastor Wiley Drake invokes imprecatory prayer asking God for President Obama to die… domestic terrorist Scott Roeder murdered Dr. Tiller in his CHURCH because he hated the doctor’s practice of performing a legal medical procedure for women in need… dry-drunk and born-again evangelical George Bush lauded the war in Iraq as a holy mission to destroy ‘radical Islamists’… please tell me how these religious people are doing anything but sowing hatred and evil on those who choose not to follow their brand of ideology? Tell me how these Christian warriors are any different than the Taliban in Pakistan or the ones that brought down the World Trade Center.

The American church pays no Federal taxes and is not answerable to the government, yet they are working hard politically to foment a persecution complex on their followers and force those of us who choose not to have their brand of faith to bow down or suffer the consequences. Over the last decade in particular, Christians were told by our previous administration to go ahead, flex your muscles, no one will deter you from your holy task to turn this country into a God-fearing Christian nation. To me, that is the height of hypocrisy from a cabal of people who tortured and killed for a phony cause.

Look around the world and see how many countries are afire because their government and religion have melded into one. I have no desire to live in a country where a religious doctrine determines what I can say, think, do or how to live, but don’t kid yourself – that is EXACTLY what evangelical Christians are all about, and they will freely admit it. Will I leave if their efforts gain traction? HELL NO… I will fight for my right to be free of religious tyranny with the same patriotic fervor that Washington’s armies did against the British during the birth of our nation. I claim my right to be a non-believer and reject any effort to force me to accept religious doctrine, laws or teachings.

I know… this all probably upsets you greatly, but you must know that my goal is not to denigrate your faith – only to inform you that your faith is not my faith, and that we hold different philosophical beliefs about the world. I choose not to follow a dogma that is based upon a book written 1600 years ago about a man that the writers heard about, did not know and never met. And that book has been re-written and edited and redacted and changed and interpreted and re-interpreted and revised, all in an effort to try and keep it relevant. And it is, for those who choose to believe it.

The Bible was written by those in power at the time who sought to establish their authority and control over an ancient uneducated populace who feared the unknown. I believe there are many positive allegories and morals that can be gleaned from The Bible, but taking those written words as fact and manipulating them into a blueprint for living is an abdication of free will.

When people like Ben Stein, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Randall Terry, James Dobson, Ralph Reed and other self-professed Christians try to blame the world’s problems on a lack of God-fearing faith, they are speaking with a narrow-minded perspective that they alone see the way things are. How arrogant! Their proclamations mean nothing to me, have no validity in my life and show them for the charlatans they are. However, when they seek to access the levers of political power to enforce their code of behavior on others who hold a different view, then we are going to have a throwdown.

OK… if you made it all the way to this point, I am both impressed and appreciative of your patience. Normally, I don’t feel the need to respond to your religious e-mails… I just chalk it up to your faith and belief, which is your right and choice. In this case, when someone like Ben Stein says such patently outrageous things and those statements start whipping around the blogosphere and on television, that’s a different kettle of fish, so to speak.

Ben Stein is dead wrong. Our world is in turmoil because humans are fallible creatures who struggle to survive and thrive, and sometimes humans try and control other humans, much to their disaster. Our species is like a fungus, a virulent bacteria that crawls across the face of Mother Earth, trying to force our will upon nature. Ultimately, we will either succeed or fail depending on our ability to love one another and accept that our fates are tied to how well we protect and defend our small Blue planet from ourselves. Our differences are literally only skin-deep, and no matter how high we build, how much cement we pour, how strong our weapons, underneath it all is still dark, sweet soil and clear water. I hope we don’t destroy it before we decide to save it.

You and I are at once different and scarily the same. I reckon that’s the way it will always be with Father and Son… how cool is that?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The More Things Change...

For the 2010 Formula One racing season, we once again have the pleasure to watch ace piloto Michael Schumacher strap in and hold on for all he's worth at the wheel of the Mercedes (formerly Brawn) factory sled. He's taking a lot of flack for his decision to come back after a 3-year 'forced' retirement, and even more because he hasn't yet won a race. To his critics, I say: STFU.

The 7-time World Driver's Champion was pushed out of the Ferrari team to make room for Kimi Raikkonen, who promptly won a single title and then spent the next two years on cruise control, ultimately leaving the sport to go... rallying?!?! And now, the Scuderia has drawn in the brilliant but scummy Fernando Alonso to make things right, with teammate Felipe Massa now on the outs and likely to be pushed out at season's end as well.

But Mikey... he wasn't finished, not yet. Sure, he broke his neck racing a Moto GP bike and learned there ARE limits to adhesion, but he knew, deep down in his Teutonic soul, that F1 still had things that needed to be done by hissownself. Besides, his big-time racing career started with the Mercedes sports car team, so why not make this final effort on behalf of the Silver Arrows that gave him his first real break?

Yes, I'm a major fan of his, have been ever since his first rainy race day at Spa in the lovely Green Jordan. Yes, he spun out and drew his first DNF that day, but his talent was never questioned, and he made things go HUGE at Benetton Renault before his stellar run at Ferrari. He developed a reputation as a brutally calculating driver with sharp racecraft and an eye for the occasional cheap shot, but so what? Results, baby... that's what makes the F1 circus so much fun to watch and enjoy!

His marriage? Questionable at best. His mentoring of the fast-but-erratic teammate Nico Rosberg? Priceless. His ability to make a good-but-not-great car jump thru hoops? Obvious.

Sooo... now we just watch and wait. He might find the cars are just too far removed from his comfort zone... the competition just too tough... the F1 circus no longer to his liking. All may be true, but for me, the situation is just too juicy to ignore, and I look forward to his first podium of the season and (dare I say it?), his first opportunity to take the checkers, spray the bubbly and leap into the air, fist-pumping like the racing animal he has always been.

Or not.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Show me your papers."

Regarding the Arizona anti-immigration bill, my questions to those who support this legislation: how many undocumented workers do you currently employ? Who mows your lawns? Does your dry cleaning? Washes your cars? Picks the produce you buy? Changes the sheets in your hotel room? Performs the millions of jobs that American business owners illegally fill with those undocumented workers, the same jobs that lazy Americans are too good to do themselves? Do you know the immigration status of everyone you pay for their services? If you don’t know or don’t care, then you are part of the problem.

Is it really that hard to figger out?

“When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”

... from the 1940 novella ‘If This Goes On…’ by Robert A. Heinlein