Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sports / Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011

I don't follow IndyCar racing that closely these days, but there are a few drivers who I know and pay attention to. Dan Wheldon is one of those drivers.

Or rather, was one of those drivers. Wheldon passed away earlier today after suffering injuries in a crash that involved 14 other cars and eventually, following the news of his death, led to the cancellation of the rest of the race.

This is without doubt a terrible loss for Wheldon's wife Susie and the couple's two sons, Sebastian and Oliver. It is also a terrible loss for the wider family of IndyCar competitors and fans, and a huge blow to the sport of racing as a whole.

Dan was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (in 2005 and this season), who also had 14 other wins and five poles to his credit in a career that ended during his 128th IndyCar start. He had also driven his way to the IRL Championship in 2005, after having been named the IRL Rookie of the Year in 2003. So his accomplishments are certainly memorable. Unfortunately, as in too many other cases, Wheldon may end up being remembered more for his untimely demise than for his victories on the track.

Racing is always dangerous, of course. The very nature of strapping oneself into a 200 MPH ground-based missile and fighting the laws of physics for two or three hours lends itself to the possibility of bad things happening very quickly. Yes, the various racing authorities have made great strides in pursuit of safety over the past few decades - in open-wheel racing, this came about especially after the loss of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Cars were slowed down, improvements in car construction were made, and tracks were reconfigured or (in extreme cases) abandoned if safety was not found to be the uppermost concern.

NASCAR's loss of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 eventually led to further innovations like wider acceptance and improvement of the HANS device, as well as the creation and near-universal application of the SAFER barrier system. It has since become rather commonplace to see what would once have been regarded as horrific crashes end up with the drivers involved being dazed, bruised and occasionally bloodied, but rarely ending in loss of life or limb.

Today, then, proved to be the unfortunate exception. Thankfully, IndyCar decided to simply end the race after a five-lap tribute by the remaining drivers rather than make any further announcements or decisions. This was supposed to have been the season-ending spectacular after all, with a possible $5 million prize for any "non-regular" driver (Wheldon included, in this case) who managed to pull off an upset win.

In the end, it was very much the wrong kind of way to finish out a season marked by a number of controversies. This is not the place to hash out such debates, though I may go into that at a later date.

For now I'll just say that Dan Wheldon, a champion in every possible sense of the word, will be missed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sports / Why I Want a Brewers - Tigers World Series

Both the Milwaukee Brewers (against the St. Louis Cardinals) and the Detroit Tigers (facing the Texas Rangers) are currently having a tough go of things, having to come from behind to clinch their potential World Series bid. I'm not going to do something stupid like predict that these two teams will actually make the big show, but it's the match-up I'd prefer to see. Reasons? They are forthcoming...

1) "The Battle of Lake Michigan". Yes, like the 2000 "Subway Series" in New York or the "Battle of the Bay" between Oakland and San Francisco in 1989, it's always fun to have a championship contest between two teams within shouting distance of each other. Driving distance is just under 400 miles, or about six hours by the fastest route. You can cut that time in half by flying, of course (assuming you don't mind a quick stop in Chicago). And really, wouldn't it be awesome to see a vast caravan of Tiger fans rolling up to Miller Park, or a wide swath of Brew Crew faithful invading Comerica Park?

2) Renewed rivalries. Remember that before the expansion and realignment of the two leagues in 1998, these two teams used to be in the same league and division. This would make for a perfect TV package, obviously, with lots of fun throwback footage: Molitor and Yount patrolling Milwaukee County Stadium, Sparky and the "Bless You Boys" tearing up downtown Detroit - the fun could be endless. (If MLB had any sense of humor/fun/whimsy, they'd stage at least one game in each stadium with old-school 1980s uniforms. Don't expect that to ever happen in a World Series, however.)

3) The Fielder Family. Prince Fielder, as you are no doubt aware, is Milwaukee's star slugger. Cecil Fielder, as you may potentially have forgotten, is Prince's dad and a former star slugger for the Detroit Tigers. Again, more interesting television angles to be had. Which way will Cecil turn - loyalty to his former team, or allegiance to his son's current employer? Maybe have Prince interview his dad, or vice versa. Madness!

4) "Beer and Cheese Party". Should Milwaukee manage to reach the Series and, even better, win the whole shebang, imagine the euphoria that would result for America's Dairyland. Not just the NFL-champion Green Bay Packers, but also the Brewers as World Champions? Just get the Bucks into the NBA Finals and...oh, wait. The NBA still can't get its act together? Never mind, then.

5) The Continued Rebirth of Detroit. Obviously, sports alone are not a cure for the ailments of Michigan's one-time crown jewel, but when was the last time that the city could boast as many as three top-flight major league teams? Yes, the Red Wings have always been consistently good, but the Tigers have gone quite a while without a championship and the Lions have been...well, they've been terrible up until now. Now, if only the Pistons could get back on track...oh, shoot. That whole NBA fiasco again! Sorry.

There are probably more good reasons, but those are the best I could come up with. Any others?