In the space of a week, the world of auto racing has lost two stars: on Oct. 16 IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon lost his life in a 15-car accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and seven days later MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli was killed in a crash at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia. I can’t really go into much more detail than that, simply because I haven’t read the stories or watched replays of the incidents. Not because I haven’t had the time, but because I’m not sure that I want to.
Many of you probably weren’t born or may have been too young to remember when Ayrton Senna died, but I unfortunately remember quite clearly watching the 1994 San Marino Formula 1 Grand Prix live on TV. It is a weird feeling even to think back to that weekend and the images flickering across the screen when two F1 drivers—Senna and Roland Ratzenberger— lost their lives. Literally watching the end of someone’s life isn’t something a kid should have to deal with. Even 17 years later, I don’t think I’d want to watch replays of that incident.
Many of the sports we watch can be incredibly violent. Crunching tackles are a core part of both football and rugby, fighting is a bizarrely accepted part of ice hockey and pretty much any auto-racing discipline is characterized by the occasional big accident. Even relatively gentle sports like soccer aren’t immune—however much people may criticize players for feigning injury, they are not always faking.
Competitors in any sport are always applauded for their commitment, even if that can sometimes lead to serious injury for either them or their opposition. Perhaps, though, there is a difference here between auto sports and the rest of them. In the same way many people watch the Super Bowl for the advertisements, many are drawn to auto racing by the big crashes. In fact, it doesn’t really matter so much if those incidents are during the actual race or in practice; they will still make the highlight reel. Maybe it is that practices in other sports don’t get recorded or that the videos aren’t made public, but I’m not sure people would care about them in the same way. And if one of those incidents involved someone getting seriously injured or even dying, I think most would find it very uncomfortable to watch it.
On a personal level, I find it hard to watch any serious sporting incidents. Not because I have known anyone who has died in extreme circumstances, but because I know what it feels like to deal with injury. I won’t bore you with the details, but having had far too many operations and spent far too much of my life on crutches, I wince at seeing anyone even so much as pull a muscle on TV.
Not that I’m a saint, though. I can’t preach too much because, after all, I’m human. Everyone looks occasionally, whether because you want to know what everyone else is looking at, because you succumb to morbid fascination or because you simply want a better understanding of what is going on. Watching the serious news with all the grisly violence censored out would give us a dangerously misleading view of the facts, but the trick is in finding a balance between gory and story.
I’m not sure, though, that we do this very well. In Sunday’s Rugby World Cup Final, New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden hyper-extended his knee in a tackle and needed to be helped from the field as he clearly could not even put weight on the injury. Most viewers probably didn’t quite realize exactly what had happened live, so a first slow-motion replay was probably justified. But the second? The third? At some point among the replays from various angles we stopped learning anything new and began simply relishing the awfulness of the injury.
The sensational always grabs the headlines, and even more so in the Twitter-inspired, rapid-fire rhythm of modern life, where you don’t get 15 minutes of fame—you get 15 seconds. Only the most shocking can break through.
Is there an answer to this? I’m not sure. Perhaps, though, TV broadcasters could resist the temptation to overplay the replays and the slow-motion shots quite so much and get back to the live action and the interesting bits. Once we know something was bad, and even how bad it was, why dwell on it? I’d rather learn about the whole of Wheldon and Simoncelli’s careers and lives than how they ended.
Tom Taylor just wishes there were slo-mo cameras around to capture his many gruesome injuries. Get him to relive those painful memories at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.