What Determines A Legacy?

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This post must begin with a disclaimer. Sometimes when I start off throwing out disclaimers, it is done in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. That is not the case with the subject I am cautiously taking on here. The disclaimer is that I tend to speak in frank terms about touchy subjects that sometimes make me sound blunt, cold and insensitive – just ask my ex-wife. That is not my intention here. While the silly season is now in full swing, something caught my eye earlier this week that I feel the need to examine.

At the IZOD IndyCar Awards Banquet the other night, IndyCar rookie Simona de Silvestro won the Tony Renna Rising Star Award and Indy Lights champion James Hinchcliffe was awarded the Greg Moore Legacy Award. Both drivers are highly deserving of their respective honors, but I got to thinking about the awards themselves, or more specifically – their namesakes.

Saturday night, I gave a silent sigh of relief. It’s what I do after every IndyCar season that has ended without a driver fatality. The unspoken subject in racing is death. It is certainly not as commonplace as it was when I was growing up in the sixties, but it still happens. This is still a very dangerous sport that we follow. Advances in safety have been outstanding over the last thirty years, but there is still no way to remove all of the danger. Quite frankly, that’s why we follow it. We are not enamored with fatal crashes, mind you. But after following this sport for so long, I am still in awe of these men and women, who get too close to the edge and crash, yet don’t seem to blink at the notion of getting back into the car and attacking the edge all over again. That’s why we follow this sport. If everyone could do it, it wouldn’t be special.

The year that I was born, the starting grid of the Indianapolis 500 featured thirteen drivers that would ultimately lose their life behind the wheel of a race car. Pat O’Connor lost his in turn three on the opening lap that morning. There was a young rookie in the field that day named AJ Foyt. Pat O’ Connor had helped the young Foyt throughout the month with tips on how to drive the track, how to listen to what the car was telling him and so forth. Foyt instantly became attached to the popular native Hoosier. After seeing his new mentor and friend lose his life so quickly, Foyt took a vow to never get close to a driver again. It explains why Foyt never had close friends at the race track. He remembered too well, the hurt he felt when he saw Pat O’Connor’s body being taken away on that May morning.

Although my father and brothers had left me behind, I vividly remember the second lap crash in 1964 that claimed the life of crowd favorite Eddie Sachs along with the life of rookie Dave MacDonald. I remember all too well, the death of Jim Clark and several other well-known drivers in the sixties and early seventies. Fortunately, there has not been a driver to lose his life from injuries sustained in the Indianapolis 500 since 1973, when rookie Swede Savage died a month after his fiery crash in the race. His pit-board operator was also killed when he was struck by an ambulance in the pits, on its way to the accident scene. Art Pollard was also fatally injured on the morning of pole day qualifying that same year. Veteran Jim Malloy lost his life during practice at the Speedway, just one year earlier.

I don’t bring these fatalities up to be gruesome, rather to let you know my perspective. I grew up in a time when even fans were numb to seeing drivers die in race cars. It was even worse before my era. Drivers routinely missed the funerals of their friends and competitors. It hit too close to home. Their mentality was to put it behind them, forget about it and move on to the next race.

Fortunately, the advances in safety have lowered the number of driver fatalities considerably since those days. In the last twenty years, there have been only a handful of IndyCar drivers to be fatally injured – with the most notable being Greg Moore in the final race of the 1999 season. But that doesn’t make the deaths of the others any less notable – especially to their friends and families. This is my point.

With death being so much more common forty years ago, no one gave any thought to honoring deceased drivers by naming trophies and awards after them. No one retired their numbers either. There were simply too many deaths. With fatalities so rare these days, it seems that when it happens – we feel the need to immortalize them with some enduring legacy.

The problem that the IZOD IndyCar Series faces is; which fatally injured drivers should be honored? At the risk of sounding crass, I didn’t know there was an award honoring the late Tony Renna. Tony Renna’s story is tragic. He made seven starts for Kelley Racing in the IndyCar Series between 2002 and 2003, with a best finish of fourth. He finished seventh in the 2003 Indianapolis 500. At the end of the 2003 season, he was signed by Target Chip Ganassi to replace Tomas Scheckter in the No.10 Target car, now driven by Dario Franchitti. On the cold morning of October 22, 2003, Renna was doing a Firestone tire test at Indianapolis when he spun in turn three, went airborne and crashed through the catch fencing in the north end, killing him instantly.

To be completely fair, is Renna’s story any more tragic than Paul Dana’s? Dana had three starts in the IndyCar Series in 2005 with a best finish of tenth. He spun and broke his back while practicing for the Indianapolis 500 that year and missed the rest of the season. He took his ethanol sponsorship with him to Rahal-Letterman for 2006. In the morning warm-up for the first race of the season at Homestead, Paul Dana was fatally injured when he struck the crashed car of Ed Carpenter. I am not going to sit here and say that Paul Dana deserves an award named after him. In all candor, he was not a good driver – but his stats weren’t that far off of Tony Renna’s.

Should Jeff Krosnoff have a trophy named after him? He was the driver for Toyota’s maiden voyage into Indy cars. The engine was woefully underpowered and equally unreliable. Jeff Krosnoff made eleven starts in CART in 1996 with the Toyota engine. His best finish was fifteenth. Ironically, he was headed toward his best finish when he touched wheels with Stefan Johansen in the last few laps at Toronto. Krosnoff’s car was launched over the concrete barriers, through the catch fencing and into a utility pole and a tree. Krosnoff and a corner worker were killed instantly. Is there a trophy bearing his name?

How about Jovy Marcelo, who was fatally injured at Indy in 1992; or Gonzalo Rodríguez, who perished while driving a second car for Roger Penske at Laguna Seca in 1999? Has anything been named after them.

I don’t mean to sound heartless, but of all the deaths that occurred in American open-wheel racing in the past twenty years, I think Greg Moore is the only one deserving of a trophy named after him. Why? Not because he was a great guy (which he was), and not because he died in a race car. He is deserving because he had won. At the time, he was the youngest driver to win a race in CART, when he won his first race at Milwaukee in 1997. He was destined for greatness and it was obvious to many, including Roger Penske who had signed him to his team for the 2000 season. Sadly, it never happened as Moore lost his life in the final race of the 1999 season.

In my opinion, any discussion about naming an award after a driver who perished in a race car should start and end with Bill Vukovich, the two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 who was killed while leading in search of his third consecutive Indy victory. Vukovich is the only driver that I might consider ranking ahead of Foyt as the “best ever”, yet I know of no trophy or honor that the IZOD IndyCar Series has in his name.

Scott Brayton lost his life in a practice crash for the 1996 Indianapolis 500, after he had already won the pole. There is an award in his name for the driver that exemplifies the character and racing spirit of Scott Brayton, but it has not been presented every single year. Again, Scott Brayton was a good guy and a great qualifier, but of all the drivers that have been fatally injured at the Speedway, many had more spectacular careers than Scott Brayton.

I am not advocating that the series should come up with a trophy bearing the name of Paul Dana or Jeff Krosnoff; nor am I calling for them to abolish the Scott Brayton Award or the Tony Renna Rising Star Award. I just think that the league treads in dangerous waters when they choose to honor some of the dead, but not all. Now…back to the silly season.

George Phillips

*- Please Note – Due to a family obligation this weekend, there will be no post on Monday, October 11. I will return next Wednesday, October 13. Have a good weekend!

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13 Responses to “What Determines A Legacy?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    George I agree, my personal feeling is, that there are so many CHAMPIONS from the world of open wheel racing to choose from, (both living and passed on) that it is not necessary to even enter into this conversation.
    In fact, not to change the subject, but, I feel the same way about the new IRL championship trophy (madman on one wheel)… The IRL managed to come up with two distinct trophies, one for ovals and one for road courses named for two individuals who excelled at these. However, when it came to the champs trophy, we wound up with the madman. Why this top award could not have been named for a former open wheel champ with his likeness displayed on same is beyond most of us….

  2. I don’t think there’s any master plan as to who to name trophies after, probably just a very emotional reaction to a tragic accident.

    In regard to the championship trophy–it wasn’t a bad idea to go with an artsy statue. Problem is that they picked the wrong artsy statue. That thing is just bad art. Mall art. And instead of a unicycle, the critera should have included an historic Indy car–even in the abstract that would’ve worked. I hope they have the nerve to change it for next year. And speaking of naming trophies–maybe the champ. trophy should be named the Hulman Cup, in honor of Tony Hulman.

  3. I like Hulman Cup, too. I also like naming trophies after the likes of Mears, Foyt, Mario Andretti, Wilbur Shaw and Bill Vukovich. Greatness.

  4. Amazing how nascar’s trophy is far and away the best championship trophy not related to Lord Stanley in sports. Bring back the Vanderbilt Cup. As for Greg Moore got an award because he was well liked AND lost his life the way he did. One could always think of them as symbolism for all drivers who lost their lives. We can’t pick them all.

  5. I think that was a very sensitive treatment of the issue, George. Nice post and good points.

  6. Timnothhelfer Says:

    I was at the HMS race weekend with the family arriving as the crash occured. When my wife quietly heard that Paul had been killed from an offcial’s wife she could not bear to stay for the race, so we left.

    Sometimes I wonder if the (young) drivers are too confident in the safety equipment they don’t respect how dangerous this really is.

    • Timnothhelfer Says:

      There was a fatality at the IMS MotoGP event this summer that was likely the youngest competitor to lose his life at the speedway. I think the motorcycle competitors are much more intimately aware of the consequences of motor sport competition. They feel every crash with their bodies and it usually hurts a lot.

  7. Gonzalo Rodríguez’ death means a lot to us Uruguayans. We hadn’t have a driver ranked so high in decades. He won F3000 races (second only to F1) at no less than Nürburgring, Spa and Monaco, three cathedrals. He was fighting for the F3000 championship in a against a McLaren Mercedes-backed Nick Heidfeld when he got killed at Laguna Seca. We have a corner at the Autódromo de El Pinar named after him, as well as karting awards not related to results.

    Gonchi means so much to me that the numbers of my nickname come after him: he won at Monaco with the number 8 and died with Penske’s number 3.

  8. Personally I think the league should keep these awards named like this. Tony Renna was THE Rising Star in this series and Greg should also be honored. Why would they name these awards with big names (Foyt, Andretti…) as they already have two championships named after them: AJ Foyt Oval Championship and the Mario Andretti Road Course Championship?

  9. Well said George, and well handled.

    I do think there is a place for annual awards named in this way for such things as spirit and sportsmanship but I completely agree that they should be appropriate to the individual who has passed. If the driver really wasn’t much cop, let’s respect that they tried their best but let’s not name things for them for the sake of it.

    NaBUro38 mentions Gonzalez in F3000. After his death, the F3000 paddock awarded ‘Winning Attitudes’ awards in his name annually, usually at Monza, the last race of the year. The ceremony is usually attended by several current F1 drivers who raced against him in the junior ranks. When F3000 was replaced by GP2 in 2006, that series continued awarding the title.

    Apologies for the late comment.

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