August 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Thrill of speed redeems racing's risks for drivers, fans

Brooklyn, Mich. — Speed is the thrill. Speed, and the ability to guide an automobile victoriously through it.

“That was a blast!” said Carl Edwards, the veteran NASCAR driver, after qualifying at Michigan International Speedway for the Pure Michigan 400, in which the track record was broken seven times. “That is the fastest lap I’ve ever made in a race car.”

Even after a decade of driving, for Edwards, the sheer joy remains.

If one does not understand that exhilaration, if one does not feel a special something in the presence of high-technology automobiles traveling 217 mph down a straightaway in competition with the best drivers in the world, then one likely thinks of racing as merely “driving around in a circle.”

And when the worst that can happen in sport — death, which happens more often in motor sports than any other sport — occurs, it seems utterly incomprehensible that anyone would want to do it or enjoy watching it.

Unless, of course, one understands the thrill.

“Finishing races is important,” said the late Dale Earnhardt, who died in an accident before he finished the 2001 Daytona 500. “But racing is more important.”

Before he was killed 20 years ago while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in his Williams Formula One car, the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna talked about the sacrifices and rewards.

He also talked about the peril.

“These things bring you to reality as to how fragile you are; at the same moment you are doing something that nobody else is able to do,” Senna said. “The same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile.”

Shadow of death

Death visited motorsports, again, eight days before the Pure Michigan 400. It was up to racing and racers to secure the redemption.

Despite a continuing investigation into an incident in which a sprint dirt-track racer driven by three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart struck and killed a 20-year-old racer, Kevin Ward Jr., drivers, team owners, crew chiefs and NASCAR officials all managed to push the sport a long way toward that redemption this week at the big, fast track in the Irish Hills.

The spectacular performances of the drivers, cars and racing teams this week, and the enormous responsiveness of officials and the “race people” demonstrated, at the very least, the requisite human decency to rationalize their sport to a world that does not always understand — even when not faced with death.

As is often the case in motor sports, including after the deaths of Earnhardt and Senna, the governing bodies of the sport acted swiftly.

“As we’ve demonstrated in our history, we’re willing to react quickly to different incidents,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice-president of competition and racing development. “It’s not just about NASCAR, but it’s all of sports and motor sports that we take note in.”

Then, in an act that seemed gracefully simple in the wake of tragedy, Pemberton simply read the 219-word rule, which formalized the advice, even the instructions, that drivers have always been given, including, “At no time should a driver, crew member or members approach another moving vehicle.”

When he was struck by the car driven by Stewart, Ward had left his car, apparently to confront Stewart on the track.

NASCAR acted, even though the incident occurred in a race far outside of its auspices or regulation.

And the proffered remedy was as simple as a mother and father’s imperative to their children: Do not play in traffic.

So, how is it that racers do “play” in traffic, when they are ticked-off enough about an on-track incident that they want to approach a rival to shake a fist, or to brandish and extended digit in the international symbol of scorn and derision?

The boys did a pretty good job of explaining that one themselves.

“I don’t think people recognize the intensity that goes on within a race; your heart rate, the adrenaline that’s flowing,” said pole and race winner Jeff Gordon, who set a track record of 206.558 mph in qualifying, and is riding a startling resurrection of a long career.

“The cars, from the outside, just look like they’re kind of rolling around there, and there’s so much more going on in our bodies and in our minds, which is why I believe that we are athletes.

“When you’re in that kind of environment, sometimes your emotions can get the best of you and put you in a position to not make the best choices and decisions.”

The great unknown

Gordon was not criticizing Stewart. Indeed, in one of a great many candid moments of the week of racing in Brooklyn, he said he had watched the video of the incident “many, many times myself, trying to understand it.”

If anything, Gordon was criticizing himself for his failure to maintain his cool during a fight with driver Clint Bowyer, and among members of their crews, two years ago at Phoenix.

Gordon was among those who said he could not pass judgment on the incident.

Edwards was among those asserting, with considerable credibility, that no one should.

“To frame this in the light that we understand what happened, I think, is wrong,” he said. “I will say that clearly. I have been racing my whole life, you guys. I have been around racing my whole life. I don’t know what happened.”

When asked about drivers controlling their emotions, Edwards remained unwavering.

“I am not going to answer that question because I believe you are framing a question with the assumption that you know what was going on in that situation. I don’t think any of us do, right now.”

Edwards did not confront. But he was firm.

As he stepped down from the dais, he went directly to the reporter who asked the question, sat down next to him and talked for another five minutes privately about his assessment, repeatedly saying that he intended no disrespect, in his answer.

Beyond the valor of straight talking and compassion, there was the racing. And the racing at the Michigan International Speedway, was sensational.

The repeated battle between Gordon and Joey Logano on the restarts was epic.

“They’re trying to win,” said Gordon’s pit chief, Alan Gustafson. “I don’t feel like either of them crossed the line. I thought that was great racing. I thought that’s how you race hard.”

In doing so, Gordon and Logano helped to redeem a sport. It was good, clean, hard racing.

Law enforcement officials in Ontario County New York say there are no signs that Stewart is culpable in the death of Ward.

But the investigation continues, and certainly Ward’s family, the people of the State of New York, racing fans, NASCAR and Stewart deserve meticulous scrutiny.

But the racing will go on, because racers know how to handle death, explain how it may occur, why they risk it and how they meticulously try to deflect it through rule-making and the very design of the cars and the tracks.

And that was the most significant news from the Pure Michigan 400, this year.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/greggkrupa

Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the Pure Michigan 400. / Steve Perez / Detroit News