The Emotions Of Racing

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Jeff Iannucci is a tough act to follow – even on my own site. It’s good to see that he hasn’t lost his wit or his candor during his time off. I am flattered that he chose to stop by my place to do some writing. He left it in much better shape than Roy Hobbson did when he came over and trashed the place. Jeff, you’re welcome anytime. Roy…I’ll get back to you.

The dead horse that is the penalty for allegedly blocking has been sufficiently beaten this week – by myself, as well. Whatever you think about “the call”, there is ample evidence throughout the blogosphere to support whichever end of the spectrum you wish to choose. One thing that cannot be debated from last Sunday’s race, though – is the passion that drives Helio Castroneves.

By now, we’ve all seen the replays of the supposed block followed by Helio’s histrionics afterwards. In retrospect, the only thing that Helio should have thought twice about was shoving IRL technical official Kevin Blanche and grabbing IRL chief of security Charles Burns. Kevin Blanche was the closest official and was trying to defuse the situation, while Charles Burns was doing his job. In most sports, most participants are severely punished for touching an official. However, most sports do not deal with potentially fatal situations when things go awry.

Drivers must keep their emotions in check while in the cockpit, for their own safety as well as their competitors. Very often, when they step out of the cockpit – they sometimes allow their emotions to get the best of them. This is what happened Sunday. Helio Castroneves had just pulled off what he thought was the move of the day. I’m sure the adrenaline was flowing freely throughout his system when he saw Will Power and Scott Dixon in his mirrors. Before he had a chance to congratulate himself and focus on the final two laps, his bubble was busted when he was told he had been given a drive-through penalty for blocking. In less than half a lap; Helio had fought off a fierce challenge from his teammate and went from elation knowing he was less than two laps from his first victory in over three months – to the devastation of realizing he had just been stripped of a certain victory.

Drivers live on the edge, on the track and sometimes off of it. Helio’s best and worse trait is the high level of emotion he displays for everyone to see. The emotions that got the best of him on Sunday are also part of what has made him so successful.

I suppose I’m being somewhat hypocritical as I compare my two favorite sports – IndyCar racing and football. Whether I’m watching college or pro football, I don’t like watching over-zealous displays of emotion. A defensive end is paid to sack the quarterback. That’s his job. To see a very large man gyrating and dancing after hitting the quarterback is ridiculous. That’s why they hired him. When I show up at work every day, should I strut and pose while giving my co-workers a high-five simply because I came to work?

Racing is different. We have gotten lulled into a false sense of security with safety innovations over the years – but this is still a very dangerous sport. Death is always tugging at the elbow of a driver. They won’t admit it, but it’s always there. To throw cars that are running on the edge into some of the situations that drivers do, defies logic. They are willing to do it for the sheer satisfaction of winning – knowing that you did everything possible in order to be the first to cross the finish line. Those that have won races say that the feeling of winning is an addiction. The more you win, the more you want to win.

Al Unser, Jr. caught some grief for his comments that were intertwined into the opening for the 1992 Indianapolis 500; when he said that when you are on the track, living doesn’t matter. Winning is the only thing that matters. Some casual fans thought those comments were a little extreme and over the top. Longtime racing fans knew of that mindset. In the fifties and sixties, death was a way of life in open-wheel racing. Of the thirty-three drivers that started the 1955 Indianapolis 500, seventeen would die in racing accidents – four before the year was out, including the two-time defending Indianapolis 500 champion Bill Vukovich who would die that afternoon while leading on lap 56.

Over the years, safety innovations have led us to believe that this is no longer a risky business. The drivers know better. This is why you get such a large variance of emotions when the drivers step out of the car. Helio Castroneves and AJ Foyt are two examples of great drivers who fed off of their emotions. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find Scott Dixon and Rick Mears. If you clipped the emotion from Helio or Foyt, I think they would both end up with mediocre results.

But now, to add insult to injury – the IZOD IndyCar Series has scheduled a meeting with Helio next week to “discuss“ his actions. Not only was he robbed, but he was supposed to keep his mouth shut and like it. He apologized for his behavior on Monday – a move that I thought was completely unnecessary. I don’t know if that was from ‘encouragement” from Roger Penske or from league officials. Whatever the case, I found it pointless. Our society seems to think if we say we’re sorry, everything goes away.

Quite honestly, I was glad to see Helio act the way he did. Based on what I’ve read this week, I know I’m in the minority. I don’t buy into the theory that this was good buzz for Sports Center. I like it because we get to see how much a race victory means to these drivers. If I am a car owner, I don’t want to see my driver simply shrug it off when a seemingly sure win is stolen away. I want to see that anger, that passion and that drive. I want to see that my driver cares and wants to win. That is what Helio showed us on Sunday.

Being in the midst of a five race span of road and street courses, I have found the IZOD IndyCar Series a tad bit boring for my liking. I’ll always watch but it had become frighteningly dull these last few races. Then Helio had his meltdown and it reminded me how important these races are to the drivers. Watching Helio’s passion reminded me why I love this sport.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “The Emotions Of Racing”

  1. In my book, Helio was robbed, plain and simple. He got screwed, royally. However, the situation made for the “perfect storm.” Yes, you have to talk with Helio because you don’t want everyone else going amouck, but not too harsh of a reprimand should be given. More like an enthusiastic warning so the other drivers and team officials get the hint. You can not grab officials by the shirt collar and scream at them on national television.

  2. I agree with JohnMc. Something needs to be done about the actual laying of hands on the officials, but given the circumstance, it should be little more than a wrist-slap.

    But otherwise, George is right: There’s nothing wrong with the emotion Helio displayed on that day at all. When a sports professional loses, there’s something wrong if they’re passive about it. And Helio was anything but. Some drivers would be in a cold rage, others would display heat like Helio, and others beyond that might get dangerous and start destroying things, but nobody’s a robot at the professional level of any sport. And no one should be. Helio gives a damn; that’s why he was so upset. If a leading driver like Helio didn’t care, that’d be a fatal indictment of the sport. People will defend that in which they place value, and Helio’s outburst, justified or unjustified, was really nothing more than him defending something he placed value in. That’s not a bad thing. Period. The only possible gripe was with the physical aspect of Helio’s reaction.

    This may be a polarizing event, but oddly enough, I think it’s good for the sport. The rule and interpretation of such is out in the open and being discussed. Fans are noticicng the sport. A top driver shows clearly that he cares. The top official has an opportunity to show whether he can handle the situation well or not (that remains to be seen). This is not bad publicity whatsoever.

  3. - unsportsmanlike conduct, throwing a tantrum and shrieking like a teenager who doesn’t get what she wants -

    No, I don’t like that rule, which would an acre of runway open for a follower to zoom past the leader. Racers and owners could have protested that before lap one.

    But if Whanica threw a fit after violating a written and spoken prohibition, would we excuse her? ‘Oh, that’s okay; it’s okay to be emotional about not getting away with violating a rule. She had done that in an open-wheel car at speed, which is inherently dangerous.’

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    This is some pretty damn good scribblin’ you came up with George. Count me as one who agrees with your take on this matter. The rule creates artificial racing. Nothing artificial about Helio. As Barnhart stated, the main purpose of the rule is to prevent follow-the-leader races. The rule, however, is not enough to overcome the basic design problems with the various road, street, and airport tracks; too narrow, not enough slow corners, etc. So most of the races are boring despite the rule.

    As for Helio’s actions after the race………well, being Irish you won’t hear much criticism from me. Unlike the folks in those Nastycars, he did not run anyone into the wall and he did not come back in the pits and run into another car. If any apology is called for it would be to Kevin Blanche and Charles Burns. He did that so let’s get back to racing. Preferably at Milwaukee or some similar oval.

  5. I agree, I’m over the fines in general in racing! I think Helio’s fine is more for shoving Blanch and grabbing Charles more than yelling at the officials. This isn’t NASCAR, drivers don’t get penalized for not saying Randy Bernard/Brian Barnhart is god….

  6. “Quite honestly, I was glad to see Helio act the way he did.”

    Me too. And quite honestly, I was glad to see Helio NOT tasered in the eye-socket & disposessed of his legs, courtesy of Chief Burns.

    • Actually I like Helio but not this last bit of physical attack on any league officials. If Helio wants to play, I would’ve been in support of Burns putting Helio’s little frame in a full-nelson on the ground and subdue him until he cooled off. Please don’t tell me Burns carries a taser, you’ll ruin my image of him as a total @$$-kicker.

  7. timnothhelfer Says:

    I would like to see Helio wear a black stetson with two days growth.
    But that’s not going to happen like many other things…….

  8. I’m with you George. I for one would have been livid if it were me in his shoes. I probably wouldn’t have grabbed anyone but then again, who knows?

  9. Steve K Says:

    I prefer an athlete that can handle his emotions. Your polls are always too extreme with the choices. What Helio did was uncalled for and he should be punished. No suspension. No point docking. Just fine him 50k and donate it to the security guard’s charity of choice and put him on some phony probation. But Helio has to carry himself better in that situation. Why am I a Dixon fan? Because I admire the way he carries himself. I find myself rooting for those guys in every sport I watch (Hershiser, Doan, Kelly, come to mind).

  10. I think the whole thing is great. It has given us all something to talk about during a boring racing season.

  11. Being angry about a call is one thing, and while understandable to a degree in this case, shoving, screaming, and grabbing an official is unacceptable in any sport, end of story. There’s simply no reason Blanch or Burns or anyone else in the league needs to put up with that from any member of any team.

    Penalize Helio for the abuse to the league workers. How about a direct, face to face apology to those he offended and a monetary fine payable to the charities of Blanch and Burns’ selection?

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