Thursday, June 26, 2008

Victim of Circumstance

Well, it's finally over. The cleansing of Indiana University's men's basketball program is complete with the resignation of Athletic Director Rick Greenspan, which will become effective on January 1, 2009. This comes in light of a new charge from the NCAA Infractions Committee which falls under the "Failure to Monitor" banner, referring to the fact that Kelvin Sampson managed to break the rules while under previous sanction. Greenspan decided that, since this charge was leveled directly at the Athletic Department and that will direct the fan base's ire directly at him, it would be best for him to cut his losses and leave. I find all of this rather unfortunate, and I have two points that I'd like to make.

First of all, for those who actually like to look at things rationally, it is very obvious that Rick Greenspan was the victim of circumstance. Kelvin Sampson is a pathological liar, and any pathological liar can pathologically lie their way into anything. Since he is so good at lying, he was able to put on a straight face when he told Greenspan and the entire IU fan base that he wouldn't break the rules ever again. In the back of his mind, he was already planning how he would try to stretch the rules in order to bring in the big-name recruits.

If you are a good enough liar, you could go into any sort of job interview and, no matter what you might've done in the past, you can weasel your way out of any interrogation. Some of these people who immediately wanted Greenspan's head on a pike are owners of businesses who probably don't realize just how many liars they have hired in their time. I can guarantee you that every manager of every business in the world has had to deal with one, but they didn't know it because of how talented the liar was. Even Bob Kravitz, who obviously thinks himself the last bastion of commen sense in the world, despite spewing crap out of his pen for many years, probably has someone on the staff with him who has lied about something major.

My second point is that it seems awfully late for the NCAA to be coming up with new charges against IU. I know the NCAA is allowed to throw charges around whenever they want, but why would they wait until now to throw this one at IU? All of the evidence of "Failure to Monitor" was there before the IU delegation went to Seattle to defend the program. What possible evidence was there that might have come out in Seattle that would have suddenly made the NCAA throw more charges? It seems like the NCAA is going above and beyond to try and knock down the IU program for one reason or another.

Plus, why in the name of all that's good in the world is the NCAA concerned about this absurdly petty phone call scandal when there are some schools that have been accused of providing cash benefits to their recruits? Did I mention that the school in question has one of the most successful football programs ever? Or that this school also has an up-and-coming basketball program who has been knocking on the door at the tournament in recent years? No, the NCAA isn't worried about the idea of a program destroying the spirit of amatuerism. They're too busy making sure the phone bill doesn't run too high.

Honestly, I've tried to not hate Myles Brand, who is universally hated in Bloomington, but It's hard to keep defending him and his organization when they continuously try to throw Indiana under the bus. There is no reason to retroactively throw these charges at Indiana, and NCAA should re-evaluate how their infractions committee works.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

As A Follow-Up...

Yesterday, I touched on the subject of Scott Kalitta and what can be done about drag racing. First off, an interesting and absurdly simple solution to the problem of outdated drag strips from's Gregg Leary here. Read his argument and try to tell me that's a bad idea.

Second, I didn't get a chance to go over some of the reasons that death in motorsport has become, ultimately, a good thing for the drivers and spectators who live on. I know that's a tough thing to say, but driver deaths lead to better safety for everyone involved.

I'm going to take a look at some major incidents over the years and talk about how those incidents shaped the racing safety community.

Le Mans, 1955
One of the most horrific moments in the history of auto racing only led to the death of one driver, but Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz flew in a fireball into a spectator area, showering it with flaming fuel and debris. All told, Levegh and 82 spectators were killed in the incident. Though sparked by the slowing Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn, officials decided that the fatalities were due more in part to the lack of safety standards at Le Mans, and effort was put into making the bleachers along the pit straight, an extremely fast part of the track at that time, safer for everyone.

Indianapolis, 1964
Though many people had died competing in the Indianapolis 500, the incident on Lap 2 of the 1964 race was one of the most spectacular, and changed the way Indy Cars were powered forever. Coming out of Turn 4, Dave McDonald's highly unstable "Skateboard" car broke loose and struck the inside wall. The impact ruptured McDonald's fuel tank and sparked a massive fuel explosion. Eddie Sachs, one of the most popular drivers in the race, hit the stricken car and was caught up in the fire as well. McDonald and Sachs both perished due to the burns they suffered. Because a gasoline fire was so difficult to extinguish, it was decided that, if the flames had been put out sooner, one or both of the drivers might have been saved. As such, Indy Cars switched over to alcohol fuel, whose flames can be extinguished by a simple bucket of water.

Hockenheim, 1968
The world lost one of its greatest racers at this Formula 2 race in 1968, and the results if the incident led to the first emasculation of one of Germany's great racetracks. Jim Clark, heading on the long blast between the Stadion and Ostkurve sections of the Hockenheimring, lost control of his car and spun into the deep forest on the side of the track. The collision with a tree fractured his neck and skull, leading to his death. It was decided that the track, renowned for its two gigantic straights that led deep into the forest, needed to have some sort of modification to slow the cars. The chosen modifications were a series of chicanes that broke up the long blasts. In 2002, the track was, as some purists would say, "neutered," to curb the high speeds of Formula One cars and allow greater opportunities for passing.

Indianapolis, 1973
For a very long time at Indianapolis, a concrete wall came from far inside of Turn 4, at an angle, to the inside edge of the front straightaway. During the 1973 500-mile race, Swede Savage, a rookie pegged by many to become a great champion, lost control of his car off of the fourth turn and hit that angled wall at great speed. His car shattered on impact, and Savage died in the hospital later on. The Speedway's management decided that, in order to lessen the chance of another such impact, they would move that wall back away from the track. Now, even if a car should spin in a similar fashion off of Turn 4, it will be able to lose a lot of speed spinning across the asphalt.

Nürburgring, 1976
Though this accident did not take a life, it very nearly did and it provided the impetus for one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Despite concerns about the safety of the mighty, 14-mile Nürburgring, the 1976 German Grand Prix went on as scheduled. Coming through the quick section between Breidscheid and Bergwerk, Niki Lauda's Ferrari lost control and slammed into the side of a hill next to the track. The burns that Lauda suffered were considered by many to be fatal, but they were minimized by the fact that three of Lauda's fellow drivers stopped their cars to help Lauda out of his. This led to near-universal criticism of the Nürburgring's safety and the ability of safety crews to reach accidents on the massive course. Sadly, the track was closed to Formula One after that, but the new track in Nürburg is much more conducive to safety crews and fans alike.

Talladega, 1987
Due to their immense size and tall banking, Daytona and Talladega became synonymous with high speed among NASCAR fans. Unfortunately, even though the cars were very heavy, NASCAR stock cars were susceptible to taking flight if something went wrong at these tracks. As such, when Bobby Allison's car blew a tire, it took off directly towards the grandstands. Thankfully, the track's catch fence managed to hold the car inside the track and prevent a catastrophe that could have killed NASCAR. Still, NASCAR's officials decided that the cars needed to be slowed. As such, they placed restrictor plates on the car's air intakes to reduce horsepower at Daytona and Talladega. Instead of killing the racing, the plates actually evened up the racing and has produced some of the most exciting events in NASCAR.

Imola, 1994
Probably the blackest weekend in Formula One history ended with the reprofiling of one of Formula One's favorite tracks. The first incident involved Rubens Barrichello, whose car was launched off a curb into a tire barrier, knocking Barrichello unconscious. The second incident took the life of Roland Ratzenberger, who took the fast Villneuve turn incorrectly and slammed into the outside wall. The third incident took the life of one of Formula One's most popular driver's ever, Ayrton Senna, whose car broke in the ultra-quick Tamburello corner and speared the outside wall hard. Because of Barichello's accident, the curbs were lowered all around the Imola track and at tracks around the world. The deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna led to the installation of chicanes and sand traps at those two turns to slow the cars and protect them from impacts.

Indianapolis, The '90s
As cars began averaging 230 miles per hour around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the severity of accidents went up by leaps and bounds. If you hit the wall at Indianapolis, there was always the possibility of severe injury. In 1992, Jovy Marcelo was killed in practice, Nelson Piquet was seriously injured in practice, and Jeff Andretti was seriously injured during the race itself. In 1995, Stan Fox's car was torn in half when it nosed into the wall on the first lap and Fox went into a Coma. In 1996, Polesitter Scott Brayton was killed when his car hit the wall during practice. Eventually, Speedway management decided enough was enough, and they began working with the University of Nebraska on one of the greatest safety innovations in all of racing, the SAFER Barrier. Installed at Indianapolis before the 2000 race and at nearly every major oval track in the world since then, the SAFER Barrier has saved countless injuries, and probably more than a few lives.

Fontana, 1999
Greg Moore was a popular driver in the CART Championship Series and was probably a favorite to follow fellow Canadian Jacques Villneuve to Formula One. Unfortunately, after losing control of his car coming off of Turn 2 at California Speedway, his car sped towards the inside of the track and hit the angled wall at one of the safety truck entrances. The car exploded into pieces on impact and Moore was fatally injured. Two things came of this: first, the walls at the safety truck entrances were reprofiled to minimize the likelihood of such an impact; second, the inside of the first half of the back straightaway was paved with asphalt because a spinning car would lose more speed on asphalt than on grass.

Daytona, 2001
Probably the darkest day in NASCAR led to yet another of the greatest safety innovations in all of racing. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt moved up the track and made contact with Sterling Marlin's car, spinning Earnhardt head-first into the concrete outside wall. On impact, Earnhardt's head apparently snapped forward and he may have hit his head on the steering wheel. Because whiplash may have caused Earnhardt's death, NASCAR (and many other racing series) mandated the use of the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) Device. The device was a simple shoulder brace that, in the event of an impact, kept the driver's head from moving forward beyond a certain angle, but it has virtually eliminated the broken neck or basal skull fracture as a cause of death in a racing accident. Also, the SAFER Barrier became a mainstay at every track on the NASCAR circuit to lessen the G-forces on impact with a wall.

Well, there you are. Safety in racing, unfortunately, is a product of injury and fatality. We generally don't see the problems with safety until they make themselves painfully obvious. Hopefully, the strides we've made will help minimize the risks these drivers will face as we head into the sport's future.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Ugly Side of Racing

Auto racing, as with many sports, can be a beautiful thing when played to perfection. Watching 20 Formula One cars take a standing start, or 33 Indy Cars accelerating out of turn 4 at Indianapolis, or a single rally car jumping a dirt hill on a narrow forest road, or 43 NASCAR stock cars going as one mass through the turns at Talladega, or watching a team celebrate at Le Mans after a grueling 24 hours of competition can elicit an emotional response that few other things can. However, as with all sports, racing can become ugly. In fact, when auto racing goes wrong, the consequences tend to be far more dire than for any other sport.

Saturday afternoon, we were once again reminded how dangerous the sport can be. NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta, 26-year veteran of NHRA competition, met his end at the wheel of his machine. As with many of the folks who plant themselves in the tight cockpits of NHRA drag racers, Kalitta went out the way he would have probably preferred: 300 miles per hour in a ball of flame. Many of these NHRA stars are tough competitors and proud human beings, and if they have to go early, they'd rather do it on the job.

Unfortunately, that does not take the sting away for the fans, the fellow crews and drivers, or the driver's family. That sting, after the initial shock of the accident abates, will eventually turn into a discussion on how to fix the problem and learn from the death of a driver.

So, how do we fix the problem? Well, for those of you who are not familiar with Old Bridge Township Raceway, it is in a highly developed part of New Jersey. Englishtown is not far off the New Jersey Turnpike, relatively close to Newark and New York City. Because of this, there is really no opportunity for the track owners to expand the sand trap at the end of the drag strip to better stop a wayward automobile. Unfortunately, this problem exists with many drag racing facilities and the only feasible option may be to simply close facilities like the Englishtown track -- a move that would not thrill traditional fans of the sport.

The other option is to try and slow the cars down, which is also a difficult problem to try and figure out. The only auto racing genre that has successfully capped the speeds of the cars at a reasonable level is IndyCar racing, and that is because they only have one engine supplier and one chassis supplier. Drag racing is all about who can build the better engine and which driver can apply every bit of power in that engine. Typical funny car speeds at the quarter mile exceed 310 mph, and any time the NHRA tries to lower speeds, the engineers find another way to get their speed up.

There is an option C, but it will make observers on the outside question the logic of the sport: do nothing. Many of the hardcore fans and a lot of the drivers accept that death is a possibility in a sport like this and the only reason they still participate is because they've accepted that fact. The lure of the sport for the regular fans is the speed of the cars through the quarter mile. Trying to close tracks or change the cars may help the sport in the end, but the NHRA could alienate its base.

The worst part of the whole thing is that, even if they solve the problem that took Scott Kalitta's life, there is always another problem that hasn't been thought of that might pop up to take someone else. It's all a part of the sport that can be so beautiful, but finds a way to be ugly at the worst possible time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pure Speculation...

There are many things to theorize, speculate, or claim to know about here in Bloomington right now. IU's athletic administration has run off to Seattle to hear the NCAA's opinion of Kelvin Sampson's shenanigans, the basketball team is trying its damnedest to get recruits so they're not terrible in the coming season, and football season is nearly upon us.

However, the most important thing to me is why...WHY on Earth the field at Memorial Stadium performed so horribly during last week's rainstorms (striking photography seen in the last post). For some background, there were a total of four rather major thunderstorms over a two-day period last week. The first three were standard, summer-in-the-Midwest thunderstorms with lots of wind and noise and the occasional tornado siren. The fourth, however, was a pure rain-maker; it dumped tons of rain upon Bloomington, overwhelming city's drainage system an causing nasty flooding on IU's campus and in downtown Bloomington. As stated below, the rain also had a nasty effect on the turf at Memorial Stadium.

Now, at first I was thinking, "There were four storms over two days, and the sheer volume of rain just washed away the soil underneath the turf." Then I happened to be watching a replay of IU's victory over Purdue on November 17, 2007, and it dawned on me: the final play at the south end of the stadium caused the problem.

See, Austin Starr is certain to go into Hoosier legend as one of the best men to ever kick a football through the uprights. Some people, though, don't realize just how good he is. Look at the photo in the previous post, then find a video of Austin Starr's winning field goal in the Bucket game. Notice anything?


Yes, the sheer force of that amazing kick striking the turf just past the crossbar in the south endzone must have rearranged the dirt underneath the turf in such a way that, when weather of any consequence struck the stadium, the whole thing fell apart. There you have it.

One might say, "This is terrible! Something must be done!" While it may be an annoyance, though, I'll let Austin Starr break football fields all he wants, as long as the Hoosiers keep winning.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Rain, Rain Go Away

Rains break Memorial Stadium turf, "experts" claim, "It's still safer for football than the old turf at Gillette Stadium..."