Thursday, May 28, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Grand Prix of Venice

Organizers Admit Grand Prix of Venice Might Be a Stupid Idea

(VENICE, ITALY) Officials in this northeast Italian resort city acknowledged today that the inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix of Venice was in danger of being cancelled, after all 24 cars plunged to the bottom of one of the city’s famed canals immediately after crossing the start line during today’s first round of time trials.

“There are still some bugs to work out in the course, unquestionably,” Venice mayor Giorgio Orsoni acknowledged to reporters after race stewards showed the red flag, indicating a halt to further practice sessions. “But it is premature to suggest that the race may be postponed. We know there are always problems when an event such as this is run for the first time. “Venice has long been known as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and Formula One is the world’s greatest form of motor racing. The Grand Prix of Venice, which I promise will be run as scheduled, will give us a chance to show the world what our city is really made of.”

No drivers were seriously injured as a result of the multiple accidents, although Ferrari driver Felipe Massa was reportedly being treated for hypothermia.
Defending champion Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull is pulled
from the water following Friday's disasterous practice

As crews using heavy cranes worked to remove the cars, valued at upwards of $15 million each ($750 million Euro), from the paddock area near the Dorsoduro region, F1 major domo Bernie Ecclestone refused to concede defeat, saying that “48 hours is plenty of time to correct any of these little bumps in the road. Or ripples in the water, as the case may be.” Many Formula 1 fans, though, expressing their anger and frustration in various internet chat rooms, laid the blame for the “fiasco” at the feet of controversial race course designer Herman Tilke, who was responsible for the design of the Venice street course. “Tilke has given us another bland circuit, even worse than Abu Dhabi,” “ruapetrolhead564” wrote in a typical comment. “Only this time he replaced sand with water.”

Longtime F1 analyst Peter Windsor felt fans might be underestimating the adaptability of F1 pit crews. “We have some of the most brilliant engineers and technicians in the world working in Formula 1,” Windsor said. “If you ask them to come up with a solution, I’ve no doubt they’ll do it. I imagine Red Bull are probably working in their garages right now, fitting some sort of oar propulsion system to the blown rear diffuser. And McLaren – well, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d come to race weekend all prepared to fit the car’s side pods with some sort of pontoon if it was needed.” He refused, however, to comment on speculation that FIA officials might allow gondoliers to accompany the drivers during the race.

Despite the confidence of race promoters and F1 officials, most observers remained unconvinced. Former world champion driver Jackie Stewart spoke for many, shaking his head as he looked out over the course while the setting sun cast an orange glow on the waters lapping gently against the guard rails set up for the race. “This is what happens when money is allowed to be the overriding concern in motor sports, rather than safety. Let’s race on a street circuit in Venice, they say. Great idea. It will bring in lots of money and look great on television, which is all they care about. Only now do we see the fatal flaw in the plan, which is that Venice has no streets.”

Originally published June 8, 2012

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Opera Wednesday: In the Castle

I've often been critical of contemporary opera, frequently with good reason, but there are some masterpieces out there from the 20th Century - some of my favorite operas were written post-1900.

Here's one of them, for instance: the controversial, often brutal but frequently magnificent Duke Bluebeard's Castle, written in 1911 by Béla Bartók, and filmed here for West German television by Michael Powell.  The Metropolitan Opera did a stunning adaptation of Bluebeard's Castle earlier this year, but Powell's production, rich in symbolism, is every bit its equal.  Don't be afraid to give it a try!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

- John McCrae, May 1915

Friday, May 22, 2015

Flashback Friday: Death at the Brickyard

Somewhere in the recesses of time there’s a memory of a newspaper picture of a spinning race car. Possibly it was this picture or one like it, which I would have seen in the Sports Peach* of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.

*So called because, in order to make it stand out from the rest of the Sunday paper, it was printed on peach-colored paper.  Distinctive, though it didn't do much to enhance the clarity of photographs.

For whatever reason - perhaps the obvious, that the car was clearly going in the wrong direction when contrasted with the other cars in the photo - the memory of that picture (as opposed to the picture itself) has stayed with me, frozen in its own moment, from that day on.  My four-year-old self didn't know quite what it meant, but I knew for sure that it wasn't good.

There would have been another picture from that Sunday’s paper, something like this one, it's meaning much easier to understand:

The photos, and many like them, were taken on May 30, 1964, at the conclusion of the second lap of the Indianapolis 500, and the worst part of that picture above is that it doesn't even show the worst part of that crash.  What you see there is the moment of impact when Dave MacDonald’s car struck the inside wall and exploded; the car then skidded across the track, where it was in turn struck by Eddie Sachs’ car, causing an even greater fireball, its smoke completely enveloping the corner of the track, making it impossible to continue.  The race was halted for nearly two hours, the first time anything other than rain had stopped it. Sachs was killed instantly*, and MacDonald died a couple of hours later from the burns he’d suffered.

*Hard as it may be to believe, it’s likely that Sachs was not burned to death, as initial reports stated, but instead was killed as the result of “blunt force injuries” from the impact of the crash.   

I could have found better pictures of the crash, ones that present the horror of the day with more clarity, but I chose those because they were how the event entered into my consciousness.  These were the days when the Indianapolis 500 was still a major, almost mythic, event in American sports.  The race was not yet carried on live television (though 1964 did mark the first of seven years in which it was broadcast via live closed circuit to theaters across America), and save for the few minutes of highlights that might appear on the following Saturday's Wide World of Sports*, the sole contact to the race was the live radio broadcast, hosted by the great Sid Collins.  For those who couldn't afford to go to the theater and didn't have the patience to listen to the radio for hours, the only entrance to this mysterious world set in far-off Middle America was the next day's newspaper.

*ABC's live TV broadcast has only been around since 1986.  No doubt it gives one a more detailed view of the 500; at the same time, it greatly diminishes the race's mystique. 

And so these pictures, or ones like them, were how I first learned about Eddie Sachs, one of the greatest drivers never to win the 500, and Dave MacDonald, a rookie at Indy but a great sports car driver in his own right; men of accomplishment who deserve better from me than to be immortalized in my memory as joint headliners in one of the darkest days in the history of the Indianapolis 500.  Jim Taylor, a columnist for the Toledo Blade, from which these photos came, described how "The fiery crash chilled a monstrous crowd estimated at 325,000 people who were suddenly quiet and solemn in the face of one of the worst tragedies in the history of this old, old track."  Some, witnessing that crash, never attended the race again.  

The pictures fascinated, but did not traumatize, me.


I may have mentioned this before, but auto racing was among the first sports that I came to love, my aunt buying an inaugural subscription to Stock Car Racing magazine for my birthday in May 1966, less than two years after the Sachs-MacDonald crash.

In May 1967 Lorenzo Bandini was killed during the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco when his car crashed and exploded.  He did not die immediately, but three days later succumbed to the injuries caused by the burns.  Aside from that, the crash resembled, at least superficially, the one that had happened at Indy less than three years before.  This time I saw the crash a week or two later on Wide World.  Other than possibly giving me a slight fear of fire, of history repeating itself, it did not dissuade me from watching future races. A month later, again on Wide World, I would see A.J. Foyt, one of the racing heroes of my youth, win his third Indianapolis 500.  His second victory had come in 1964, the race in which Sachs and MacDonald were killed.

It bears repeating: auto racing was and is a dangerous sport.  But as technological and psychological changes have evolved, the sport has become that much safer.  Dale Earnhardt, Ayrton Senna, and Dan Wheldon, great drivers who were the most recent to be killed in their respective racing disciplines, remind us that death is always a present companion, one that maintains the ability to shock.

In 1964 auto racing was dangerous enough that the aforementioned Toledo Blade presented a kind of macabre box score detailing the types and severity of injuries that had occurred during the race.  I don't know whether or not this was a regular feature every year, but its appearance reinforces the impression that such risks were an understood, if not welcome, aspect of the sport.

Phil Hill, one of the greatest of racing drivers and the first American to win the Formula One World Championship, once said that drivers of his era (late '50s, early '60s) expected to die in a racing accident.  He was matter-of-fact when he said it.  It was the thrill, the adrenaline rush that came from the combination of speed and competition, that made them who and what they were, and made acceptable the risk that accompanied racing.  Sachs himself once said that "in the long run, death is the odds-on favorite."  Bobby Unser called survival a 50/50 proposition.

Today we look at things differently: we shield our heads in helmets when riding a bicycle, we use antibacterial soap to wash our hands, we beg the government to save us from the dangers of food and drink.  Yet, as the newsman Harry Reasoner once said, for all the efforts man makes to avoid risk, "he may get one day extra or none; he never gets eternity."  It echoes the words Sid Collins spoke after the announcement of Sachs' death had been made on the radio broadcast. "We're all speeding towards death at the rate of sixty minutes every hour," he said.  "The only difference is that we don't know how to speed faster, and Eddie Sachs did."  Sachs died driving his racing car and, concluded Collins, who knew the man and the racer, "I assume that's the way he would have wanted it."

The relative safety of auto racing today has induced, if not overconfidence, a kind of complacency about the sport's ever-present danger, in fans if not in drivers.  People who are not racing fans think that many of those who are come to see the crashes, in the same way that hockey fans come for the fights, though I have never been that kind of fan.  Some think the emphasis on safety has been to the overall detriment of the sport and its competitive nature, that back in the day drivers enforced a kind of self-discipline knowing a small mistake could have catastrophic results. About one thing there is agreement: there are drivers living today who would not be, had their accidents occurred in another era.  The important thing, racing people will tell you, is that spectators should not be put at risk.  They remember the 83 spectators killed in the 1955 accident at LeMans, and while the driver knowingly assumes the chances of death, the fan should not.


This weekend marks the greatest single day of auto racing on the calendar, beginning in the morning with the Grand Prix of Monaco, continuing through the 500, and ending with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, NC.

It's also the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald*, commemorated in a great new book by Art Garner, Black Noon.  There is something about that 1964 race that stays in the mind; many will say that racing was never quite the same after it.  Sachs and MacDonald were not the first drivers to die at Indianapolis, of course, nor are they the last.  The race had claimed 16 lives prior to 1964, and Swede Savage was killed in a particularly ugly accident in 1973; other deaths have occurred at the Speedway as recently as 2010.  Speed has always been prized at Indianapolis and 1964's pole-winning qualification average was over 157 miles per hour, a speed that seems primitive compared to this year's winning average of over 231 mph (which isn't even a record).

*And of Fireball Roberts, the great NASCAR star, who died as a result of a fiery crash at the Charlotte race the week before.

So why do we remember 1964?  Perhaps because two drivers were killed in the accident, the only time it's ever happened at the 500.*  Maybe it's due to the fame of Eddie Sachs and the promise of Dave MacDonald, combining with cars designed to go as fast as possible while carrying as much flammable gasoline as possible to create a Greek tragedy.

*On three occasions accidents caused multiple deaths, but each time those killed were the driver and his riding mechanic

Or maybe it's the memory of those pictures, first seen 50 years ago in the pages of a peach-colored sports section, the flames and smoke blotting out the sun and causing the blue noontime sky to turn black - more awful in some ways than even the actual film footage.  Tragedy often comes to us in the midst of triumph, death shattering the tranquility of life.  Amid the flags and balloons and fireworks, the cheering of hundreds of thousands of fans, death came to the old Brickyard in 1964, and the memories remain; the pictures never change.

Originally published May 23, 2014

Thursday, May 21, 2015

20th year of an Indy tradition

Of all the traditions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 2015 season will be the 20th year of an odd tradition that started in the Crown Royal 400 in 1996.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sharing notes

Congratulations, Michael and Serena!  Born on May 8, 6 pounds, 7 ounces, 20 inches long, it's Daniel Edward LaRoche!

Hype Week.  The real "Hype Week" is finally here for the countdown to June 6, 2 PM EDT on your local Fox station:

  • Jeep and the Qatar Foundation.
  • Berlin.
  • Juventus.  FC Barcelona.

The most watched show of the year.  More people will watch this one clash of the titans than any other programme.  Cue the theme!

And Speaking of Themes and Sports.  It's the Month of May, and WIBC Radio will be playing this. Can you identify why?

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Big Ten and political correctness -- #B1GPC rampant in attacks on the Kyles and the Cathys.

Political correctness on campus has become a weird situation after all.  Yet, it seems one of the "Power Five" conferences has been the centre of the political correctness controversy with the misnomer tag of the Big Ten being at the heart of the issue.  #B1GPC has shown the ugliness of political correctness this spring in three cases, with two appeasing to terrorists of one type, and a third member appeasing to "terrorists" of another type.

Two full-time members of the conference, the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland, have become full examples of the former.  The popularity of the movie "American Sniper," based on the biography of legendary American soldier Chris Kyle, at the box office and sales of the book, was not enough to reward the film at the highest levels of Academy Awards glory, especially in an era of the out of touch Hollywood where judges for award shows have become a Politburo to impose their wanted Communist values.  These Politburo and Supreme Soviets have infiltrated college campuses, where a lack of thought has developed from indoctrinating the students into the values of the progressive mind, which works when you consider how strong-left the urban areas and college towns have become compared to the rest of the state.  In Ann Arbor, Michigan planned to screen the film in the student union, until an Islamic student association complained about the film, which is described from the narratives in Mr. Kyle's biography.  The complaints forced the school to shut down the plan, until the leader on the gridiron, Jim Harbaugh, proved he was more popular than student leaders by effectively overturning the cancellation, forcing the school to show the film as promised.

In College Park, Maryland also planned showing the film, and once again complaints from the Islamic associations erupted.  Cancellations were made, and even a former gridiron star vowed not to support his school because of their behaviour towards the film by appeasement.  The result was the same, as they had to show the film.

But that's not the only place of attack in the college campus world.

Brothers Dan and Donald (Bubba) Cathy, along with sister Trudy White, and their children continue the legacy of their late father, Samuel Truett Cathy, with the Chick-fil-A quick-service restaurants.  Popular in many places (malls, schools, et al), the firestorm that Big Sexual Deviancy has created by attacking the values of the family (many of whom teach Bible studies at their own churches, and believing in the classic "He rested" on the seventh day) and the Bible, has infiltrated Johns Hopkins University, a Division III school that plays lacrosse at the Division I level (schools are allowed to play one sport at the Division I level if they are Division II or III;  this rule excludes sports that are in Division I but not Division II, such as ice hockey and men's volleyball).  As a Division I school in lacrosse, they are associate members of the Big Ten for the sport only, which is often used for "stragglers" who play certain sports in conferences that do not sponsor them, for example the men's Football Association in Conference USA has two Southeastern Conference schools because FA is not a sport offered by the SEC, and both schools play in C-USA.

The Big Ten membership puts them at the forefront of the Political Correctness in the Big Ten issue.  The students, infiltrated by left-wing propaganda taught in schools and popular culture that showed itself in a recent report from The Washington Times, passed a resolution demanding a ban on the faith and family restaurant chain from campus if the local franchisors wanted to come.  It was clear that the erotic liberty folk is doubling down with more hate of Chick-fil-A, just like the hate of American Sniper.

The base of the Left's new tolerance is the college town where thought is replaced by forced obedience of the lobby, and the urban areas.  It is now showing with the examples at the Big Ten.  Is there truly something in the water in Big Ten territory?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Safety Car driver might force Mr. Bestwick to do a double take

When the 99th Indianapolis 500 takes to the green flag, ESPN lead man Allen Bestwick might have to take a look at the Corvette Stingray Z06 Safety Car and talk to the driver before the start of the race.

You will wonder why after you hear his calls.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Flashback Friday: Does charity begin with the government?

Penn Jillette – the talking half of the comedy/magic team Penn & Teller – is an endlessly interesting man. That doesn’t mean that I always, or even usually, agree with him. I seldom agree with anyone that often, including me. It does, however, mean that within the contents of any given comments of his, there are bound to be words of interest, ideas that bear exploration, repetition, even agreement. And so when he appeared with Piers Morgan on CNN (catch Piers soon, by the way, before the British phone hacking scandal claims him), there was stuff that was good and stuff that wasn’t so good.

His atheism, for example, has never appealed to me. (I recall once reading about how he and his partner Teller were so adamant on this point that they even removed the Gideon Bibles from the hotel rooms in which they stayed.) I think he’s dead wrong about faith – requiring certainty about anything, including religion, is a formula for paralysis, in my opinion – but at least I understand where he’s coming from more than I did before. And just because I disagree – strongly – with it doesn’t mean that I can’t at least comprehend it. (I think he’s an outstanding candidate for prayer, by the way. The appearance of a divine intervention in his life might be difficult for him to explain away, which in turn might force him to acknowledge it as something worthy of further consideration.)

And just because I disagree with him on some things doesn’t mean that I can’t agree with him on others. He says that his thoughts on politics flow from the same insistence on certainty as do his thoughts on religion; but his demand for certainty, which fails him in the sacred, serves him much better with regard to the secular. Take, for example, his thoughts on government programs:

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.
Oddly enough, he might find himself in agreement with the great Catholic humanitarian Dorothy Day, who felt that government welfare programs tended to abrogate the individual’s moral responsibility to provide charity themselves. When you can have the government do your charitable work for you, why bother to get your own hands dirty?

Needless to say, there are many liberals, dedicated to taking your tax money from you to do good, who also contribute their own personal time, talent and money. I’m not saying that all they do is steal from the rich and give to the poor from the comfort of their own homes. But Penn’s comment that “There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint” is a profound one. Make no mistake, he says – “When they come to get you for not paying your taxes, try not going to court. Guns will be drawn. Government is force -- literally, not figuratively.” Which leads to this conclusion:

I don't believe the majority always knows what's best for everyone. The fact that the majority thinks they have a way to get something good does not give them the right to use force on the minority that don't want to pay for it. If you have to use a gun, I don't believe you really know jack. Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks. It's just ganging up against the weird kid, and I'm always the weird kid.
There’s a great deal of truth in that statement. It’s classic libertarianism, and while that’s another –ism that I don’t completely agree with, there’s no doubt that it’s a vital and necessary part of contemporary conservative thought.

And proof, once again, that food for thought can come from surprising places.

(By the way, in the midst of this heavy discussion don’t overlook the hilarious story he tells about a Nobel-winning physicist, a community college teacher, and a talk show host. And no, they don’t walk into a bar together.)

Originally published August 18, 2011
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