There’s an old joke that automobile racing was invented alongside the invention of the second automobile. As with any joke, there’s an element of truth to it – there’s something about mankind that drives us to push our creations up to and beyond the limits of their design in search of just a little more. Competition also drives us up to and beyond our own limits – occasionally finding us riding that ragged edge between victory and tragedy, where engineering dares not tread lightly.
This past weekend was the Indianapolis 500, where professional racing teams take four wheels, a few bits of plastic, and an engine past 200 miles an hour; dealing with speed, air pressure, and gravitational forces that – outside of racing – generally only fall under the professional purview of fighter pilots and astronauts. Three hours, and 499 miles later, the race ended just after the leader of the race, rookie J. R. Hildebrand, exceeded the limits of just a few of those forces and hit the wall coming out of the last turn at 210 miles an hour.
The speed and inertia of the crash was so great, that even after hitting the wall more than a quarter mile from the finish line and ripping the front right wheel off the car, he finished in second place by several hundred feet. Most importantly though, in interviews after the race J. R. was able to express his personal and professional disappointment at finishing in second. Despite riding right off that ragged edge, the safety systems built into his car protected him completely from the effects of the crash.
Automotive safety has come a long way.
I had some serious reservations about posting this video, for several reasons. To be clear, it’s not what you’d traditionally consider “awesome.” At its core, it features shots of vintage automotive racing set to A.A. Bondy‘s Killed Myself When I Was Young. It’s the nature of the footage though, that makes this video so striking and memorable for me, because while Mr. Bondy croons his melancholy folk tune, almost every shot features these vintage racecars crashing.
I’ll warn you: it’s shocking how little thought “safety” was given back then, so while none of the footage could be considered explicit, it’s still difficult to watch at times. You don’t ever see it – at least not highlighted – but I have no doubt that some of these men died because of these crashes.
But beyond all that shock, beyond all that hindsight of twenty-first century engineering, there is something tragically beautiful about the video in the same way that a eulogy is beautiful. It’s a video showing people’s lives through their deaths and near-deaths; of an understanding of who they are at their very core expressed directly through their passion – even if that passion eventually killed them. We should all be so lucky to die doing what drove us to live.
In the end, it’s that thought that led me to post this video. Because while I would never call it “awesome,” it does feel incredibly poignant.