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THE RACE ISSUE

If you'd like a startling new insight into America's strange love affair with the automobile, try standing beneath one of the underpasses at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while 230-mile-per-hour race cars scream over the pavement above your head. The sensation is not unlike cozying up to a roomful of tornadoes. Even at rest during a pit stop, 800 unmuffled horsepower can produce sounds both thrilling and unsettling. The driver, seeking to keep the spark plugs from fouling, twitches the gas pedal, and the unholy shrieks, yawps and bellows that issue from the engine compartment (sheer music, fans will tell you) speak not so much of a hunk of machinery as a powerful, wounded animal demanding to be on its way.

But that's nothing compared with a turbocharged racing engine "in full song," as the aficionados like to say. Standing there in the dark below the pavement at Indy, you can feel the whole ancient place shake alarmingly every time a car hurtles past overhead, and the impact on your chest and innards is palpable. Yes, these are tornadoes flying by. These are beasts in need of taming, as Mario Andretti calmly points out in his new TV spot for motor oil. In all of sport, there's nothing quite like the sensation--for driver or spectator.

But on the eve of this year's Indy 500, some other noises are being heard again around the track.

The periodic outcry against the obvious danger and supposed meaninglessness (not to mention the poor gas mileage) of motor racing is itself in full song this spring. Every nickel-and-dime social engineer with a Toyota Tercel parked in the driveway seems to be fulminating in print or shouting over the airwaves about how car racing is a foul barbarism on its way down the tubes. And that its demise needs some helping along.

"Of all American sports," Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell announced last week, "auto racing is the least appealing and the least legitimate." Hey, Tom. Tell that to the 400,000 or so spectators who show up at Indianapolis Sunday.

Inevitably, other pundits--the pit crew of political correctness--are bleating away again about how this one sport shows what a world of blood-thirsty ghouls we have become--as if events in Bosnia, Rwanda and the NBA Punchoffs had not already dramatized the irrationality of humankind. The people who attend automobile races, this familiar line of thinking goes, are the same bunch who crowded into the Colosseum to watch the lions make lunch of the Christians. Behind the mild face of that middle-aged fellow lolling in the Indiana sun under a checkered-flag golf cap lurks a demon, bloody in fang and claw, who's paid his fifty bucks in the express hope that a couple of cars will crash and burn right in front of him.

The naysayers are out in force again because 1994 has already been the unluckiest, most tragic season on the racing circuits in a dozen years.

Two months ago rookie driver Rodney Orr and former NASCAR champion Neil Bonnet were killed in separate accidents while practicing for the Daytona 500, the most prestigious event in stock car racing.

On April 30 Formula One rookie Roland Ratzenberger crashed and died a day before the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy. That shook up the high-strung international racing crowd, because Ratzenberger was the first F1 fatality since Gilles Villeneuve was killed in Belgium back in 1982. But the Formula One nightmare was only beginning. In the San Marino race itself, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna hit the wall in Imola's treacherous Tamburello turn and was killed when part of the car's suspension hit his helmet. The daring Brazilian was considered one of the greatest race drivers of all time, the Michael Jordan of his sport, and his death sent shock waves through the entire racing world.

Then, two weeks ago in the streets of Monte Carlo, Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger, age 25, crashed while practicing for F1's most glamorous event, the Monaco Grand Prix. Wendlinger remains in a coma. Should he die, he would not be the first victim from Austria: Former world champion Jochen Rindt was also killed in a racing accident in the early 1970s.

After the Ratzenberger accident, angry charges flew that rule changes regarding computerized traction-control devices had made this year's F1 racing machines more dangerous than the 1993 models, and feuding drivers vowed to set aside differences to reconvene their long-dormant safety group.

Everyone agreed that Ayrton Senna should be the new chairman. He died the next day.

After Wendlinger was hurt, organizers came close to canceling the Monaco Grand Prix, but the drivers would not hear of it. Germany's Michael Schumacher led from start to checker for his fourth straight F1 victory. The champagne-spraying festivities on the winners' podium at Monte Carlo were not what they usually are, but none of these extraordinarily gifted athletes gave any indication he would lift his right foot a single millimeter next time around the circuit.

These are professional race car drivers, and what they love is to drive race cars. Regardless of whether the next fatal accident comes twelve years from now or twelve minutes.

When the green flag falls at the Brickyard Sunday, 1994's four notable racing deaths will doubtless remain in the minds of the 33 drivers, including two generations of racing Andrettis, pole-sitter and 1992 winner Al Unser Jr.--whose esteemed father, Al Sr., winner of four Indys, retired last week--the late Ayrton Senna's fellow Brazilians, Emerson Fittipaldi and Raul Boesel, and Lyn St. James, just the second woman to compete at Indy, starting boldly in the second row. They may think about the year's racing tragedies, even about the 37 drivers who have been killed at the Brickyard itself. But those thoughts are not likely to last long: For one thing, Indy is too fast a game for that.

Is it also too dangerous? Consider. If the absence of danger were a priority, would Dennis Byrd of the New York Jets have ever stepped onto the gridiron? Would Muhammad Ali have taken off his robe and danced toward glowering Joe Frazier? Investing in the stock market is dangerous, too. So is driving to the supermarket with half-blind Uncle Arnold at the wheel of his Ford Taurus. Getting married is dangerous. But when Nigel Mansell aims his race car down the 240-mile-an-hour front stretch at Indy, it's dangerous within limits. Because Nigel Mansell is not you or me--he has the steely nerve and lightning-quick reflexes to transform each blinding trip around the oval from a deathly hazard into a work of art. The rest of us should enjoy such odds boarding Amtrak.

Is motor racing legitimate? Consider. Is chasing a little white dimpled ball over hill and dale legitimate? That's right--it doesn't have to be. How about throwing a big brown inflated thing through a steel ring? Or punishing a cowhide sphere with a wooden stick?

Consider. When John Elway steps up into the pocket and coolly scans his downfield receivers even as four or five runaway beer trucks wearing Los Angeles Raiders uniforms come crashing through the line at him, does he ask himself if what he does for a living is legitimate?

May the fallen athletes of motor racing rest in peace. May the others drive on for the skill and beauty and reward in it. And may the crowds--not bloodthirsty barbarians at all, but connoisseurs of the belief that human beings can tame their beasts--enjoy a beautiful day at the races.

Lady and gentlemen, start your engines! And Godspeed.

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