There’s a picture that I have seen of the original Mercury 7 astronauts that sticks with me. In it they are gathered in front of an F-106B fighter. Seven guys in a hodgepodge of flight suits, standing as casually as if they were waiting for a bus. Look at the faces, and they could have been cut from the pages of Life magazine. Square jawed, crew cut, men. Exactly the way we imagine all men to be in the 1950’s. To look at them you would think that strapping yourself into a tin can atop an ICBM, and being launched into space was as common place as a bus driver with his lunch pail, heading out to work. It’s hard to fathom the danger, or the fear of the unknown that must have been hidden somewhere behind those smiles. For surely there was fear.
Yet there they sit, chiseled into our memory, smiling like they were sharing a joke over a drink at the corner bar. This is what we call the face of bravery.
There is another picture that I remember. A photo of Parnelli Jones, Indy 500 race car driver, and his Watson roadster, surrounded by J.C. Agajanian and his crew, holding up a pit board with the number 50+ scrawled across it in chalk. It commemerates the date in 1963 that he posted the first official 150 mph average lap speed on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Smiling in his crew cut, he may as well have been one of the Mercury 7.
To call the Watson Roadster a race car, is to conjure images of modern Formula 1 machines crafted by the work of hundreds using the latest computer simulations. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a tin missile, hand built by A.J. Watson, with a 4 cylinder Offenhauser engine that roared like a hungry Lion. In lapping the Brickyard in preparation for the Indy 500 that month of May 1963, he kept getting close to the magical 150 mph barrier, but was unable to break through. Until one lap, while pushing his braking ever deeper into the corner, the rear end slid out coming out of Turn 2. The back end of the car started to wiggle, and as he corrected, and straightened the car out heading into the backstrech, the tires caught, and he snapped back into control carrying more speed than ever before.
The next time through, rather than lift off of the gas, and back down his speed, he did it again. And again. Until he had mastered the feel of it. This is how he was able to wring that extra 1 mph out of that primitive beast.
That was a long time ago, and space travel and auto racing have come a long way in those 50 years. With our advances in material science, and mechanical engineering we are able to build machines that make trips around the race track, or into space, look no more difficult than riding the bus to work. Looks are decieving.
Sunday afternoon, while sitting on my couch with 20 Prospect Jr., watching the opening laps of the Las Vegas Indy 300, I was reminded once again, how fragile life can be, and how limited our technology is when it is put up against the forces of nature. On lap 11 of the race, a simple touch of two cars, multiplied exponentially, until a chain reaction crash brought 15 cars into a flaming wreckage worse than anything Hollywood could ever dream up. In the accident, the car of 2 time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon ran up the back of another race car, and was launched into the air at 225 mph. His car spun as it flew, touched another car, then pancaked into the catch fence with it’s cockpit facing out. He died an hour later from massive head injuries.
Two days later, I still feel hollow inside. To say that auto racing is dangerous, is irrelevant. The feeling I have in my gut is the same one I had in 1986 when the Space shuttle Challenger exploded, or when Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003. Despite 50 years of the best and the brightest minds working to improve the safety of these two endeavors, auto racing, and space travel will remain two of the most dangerous pursuits known to man. To say they are pointless, and not worth the time and energy, is to miss the point. So long as there are limits, mankind will continue to push them. This is not rational, nor is it logical. However, it is well documented, that humans are hard wired this way. Whether it is the Mercury 7, or Dan Wheldon, the face of death will never be enough to scare us away from pushing the boundaries. It will only spur us to try harder.
As I tucked 20 Prospect Jr. into bed tonight, I looked up at the poster on his wall that we got in 2009, during our trip to Iowa Speedway to see the Indy 250. Smiling back at me with his infectous smile was the face of Dan Wheldon. Helmet under his arm, hands on hips, he looked for all the world like an Astronaut, heading off into the unknown. Though we often forget it in our sanitized world, bravery lives all around us.
He left behind a wife, and 2 small boys. As well as several hundred thousand fans who will forever mourn his loss. Godspeed Dan Wheldon.