Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Most Dangerous Driver in Auto Racing

By Doug Vehle
Special For The Daily Bosco

So this guy running a racing league for kids back in the 1990's thought he knew which of those kids was in front of him after the race as he said. 'Nice race, Kyle, clean and fair, as always.' He was caught by surprise when the answer was a predictably surly "Save it for my little brother." Not only was Kurt unlikely to ever be called "Clean" or "Fair" after a race, he didn't want you to forget it. For Kyle Busch, meanwhile, it was the beginning of a period of receiving ire intended for his older brother. By the time he ran his first NASCAR Cup race, his brother Kurt had caught a big break by winning the first 'Roush Racing: Driver X' reality show that brought him the chance to race in NASCAR. During the race where he died, Dale Earnhardt would give Kurt the finger with his hand out the window, followed by other high profile feuds with drivers and an arrest. As Kurt was listed 3rd in a 'GQ Magazine' top 10 list of most hated athletes (Behind Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens) Kyle arrived to boos at the mention of the name 'Busch.' Kyle would smile, bow to the more persistant crowds desperate for someone to hate, even welcome them to continue doing so. Quickly the crowds forgot about Kurt continuing to feud with other drivers and even smashing his car repeatedly into another off the track during practice, spewing profanities at his crewchief and occasionally car owner, instead focusing their bile on the, at the least, more sedate Kyle. When Kyle finally offered a transgression of his own by speeding more than 50mph over the limit, the lynch mobs finally had what they wanted: An excuse to call for Kyles' head.

You're left to wonder at the way some walk away scot free while others take a bad rap. Not only do NASCAR drivers Karl Edwards and Kevin Harvick brag of wrecking others deliberately, when their efforts backfire and they wreck themselves, they seek revenge on the intended victim. Yet Edwards especially smiles for the crowd and all is forgiven, even after he deliberately flipped another car he had carelessly run into earlier in the race and damaged his own car while doing it. How he can say he has reason to be mad at the other driver is beyond all logic, yet he persists.

The son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt doesn't win much, but he can be expected to be voted most popular driver, no matter how many times he hunts down and wrecks a driver he couldn't get past for 23rd place, or how many other cars he takes out as he does so. Meanwhile there's a lack of legitimate complaints against Kyle Busch, although there's always someone quick to place threadbare blame on him as they know the masses will accept it. Such as the winner of a race who stood in the winners circle saying he spun because Kyle Busch was a dirty driver, even though the video proves Busch never came close to touching him. The truth has never stopped the self righteous before, why should it start now? So the troublemakers get to keep causing trouble while the wrong person takes the heat.

My great concern at the moment is not in NASCAR but in Grand Prix racing. Now in his 5th year, Lewis Hamilton is complaining because he's faced penalties in 5 out of 6 races so far this year. Somehow his reckless driving is an entitlement in his mind, while punishment is an affront. The regularity of his behavioral problems is rapidly making him the Terrell Owens of racing, as the situation is always exacerbated by the largeness of his mouth. After a qualifying penalty failed to discourage him from committing the same violation twice during the race at Monte Carlo last weekend and wrecking others out on both occasions, he has chosen to play the race card: "Maybe it's because I'm black."

Since he brings it up, Hamilton is rather like the English Barack Obama, black father and white mother, raised by the mother and the white half of the family yet identified as black. His well to do father made up for absenteeism with radio control cars, go karts, anything racing that makes him the envy of so many of us poor kids who would just love to be out there doing these things. He did well enough to become sponsored by the McLaren Young Drivers program, giving him the opportunity to step up into the more expensive development racing leagues.

And winning, he would take the championship at each level before moving up, all the way to GP2, the current primary feeder series in the pathway to the Grand Prix. You don't HAVE to run GP2 to get to Formula 1, but winning the title there is almost a guarantee. Hamilton arrived to drive with Team McLaren more than 10 years after he is said to have approached owner Ron Dennis to say 'I want to drive for you.' Dennis responded he'd discuss it in 9 years. In fact it was just 3 years later that Hamilton signed with the development program, meaning that at the age of 13 he was the youngest driver to ever ink a deal that included a clause giving a team the right to his services in Formula 1 when he was ready. Indeed the Williams team was prevented from signing him, McLaren held the rights to this minor leaguer. Easy to see how all this could go to his head. But don't forget, this is like a college athlete who must understand that all his teammates were also stars in high school, as with every team he will play against. And all the pro athletes were stars in college, unless they skipped and went straight to the pros. His prior success didn't make him all THAT special.

Yet his rookie year in 2007 he was the teammate of the winner of the last two championships, Fernando Alonzo. You might expect him to show some appreciation to the top team that was giving him the rare opportunity to start at the top rather than being forced to bide his time with lesser equipment, as Alonzo had done. And you could definitely expect him to show some respect to the top driver in the Grand Prix. Yet Hamilton would commence complaining that the team had told him to hold back while running second to Alonzo, which led to an investigation where recordings of the radio contact would prove otherwise. 'Team Orders,' where one driver is racing only to support his teammate, was not allowed. Rather than learning to keep his mouth shut after being caught in a lie, he seemed to figure out others were listening. He proceeded to complain of Alonzo being in the team pit stall as he came in and waiting for traffic to clear before leaving, causing Hamilton to run out of time to get another fast lap. No real proof of a violation, yet Alonzo was penalized. Hamilton complained the penalty should have been worse, even as McLaren reminded him of his own lack of cooperation. McLaren, meanwhile, began to acquiesce to their Infant Terrible as he commenced swearing at personnel when he didn't get his way. Alonzo saw the favoritism affecting his title hopes. Indeed Alonzo and Hamilton tied for second in the standings, one point behind champion Kimi Raikkonen. The unwarranted penalty alone may well have cost Alonzo a third title.

With Alonzo leaving (Escaping?) at the end of the season, McLaren hoped there might be peace with Hamilton. There's a great romance to being able to develop a driver for yourself at such a young age. Alonzo had been World Champion when McLaren signed him, but Hamilton was only racing at this level because of McLaren. Yet the difficulties continued, not including off track legal problems, with the penalties at last falling where they belonged. Hamilton has faced discipline for impeding other drivers during qualifying and races, forcing drivers off the track, cutting curbs in chicanes, even for lying to officials to cause a car in front of him to be disqualified before recordings of Hamiltons' radio communications proved he knew his testimony was untrue. He would blame McLaren owner Ron Dennis for the lying incident, leading Dennis to leave his active role with the Grand Prix team.

I'm hard pressed to think of another driver facing near the disciplinary action of Hamilton, or offering such petulant talk in response to it. With yet another cutting the curb in a chicane in qualifying causing him to whine when his time was disallowed, then his howling that his recklessly making contact with 3 other cars in the race to cause two wrecks is not the cause of his latest predicament, I'm as tired of his reckless MOUTH as I am of his reckless driving. His convoluted explanations that always blame the OTHER guy demonstrate his unreasonable expectation that we just go along with him over all good sense.

The fact remains that Lewis Hamilton is still the Golden Child, protected far more than he deserves. When he caused the first wreck in the same manner that he was penalized for in qualifying the live commentators were limited in their reaction. When there was a misunderstanding and his former champion teammate in an identical car was at first blamed for the second incident the commentators instantly spoke of race stewards and penalties, talk which ended the moment they learned who the guilty party really was. Hamilton is far from being a target.

When he first was announced as the first black Formula One driver, it was anticipated that he would most likely own all the firsts, as he could be expected to be the first black driver to be fast qualifier, race winner, champion, all measures of success were possible with a team like McLaren. Now that he has indeed achieved all of them, it's time to stop handling him with kidgloves. Several drivers are already complaining that his punishments are never enough to match the crime, that is why the behavior continues.

As he gets older his behavior seems to get worse. Probably because he's outgrowing the influence of his father, who seems at least from a distance to be an individual of better character than his son. While we were not learning what was being said behind closed doors, the signs were there it was being said. The most visible came after what had been Hamiltons' most serious incident prior to last weekends' race. At the Canadian Grand Prix
his nearest competitors in the standings were race leader Raikkonen and 2nd place Robert Kubica, both of whom were stopped by a red traffic light leaving the pits because of traffic. An inattentive Hamilton came too fast heading straight at Kubica and since he couldn't stop in time apparently chose to swerve and take the tougher competitor of the two out of the race with him. Unfortunately it takes a little more than the visible maneuvering under braking to bring the deserved penalty, so he climbed from the car safe from punishment, at least officially.

As they climbed from the wrecked cars the quiet Raikkonen reached over and turned Hamiltons' head toward the light he'd ignored and pointed to it. One commentator called it "The polite way to give the finger in public." Hamilton might have been contrite enough to not treat it that way, but he responded with a gesture of his own on television and seemed ready to take it to a physical altercation. As the media crowded around during his walk to the garage he began to push them away and demonstrate the level of his displeasure. It seemed like a long, pregnant walk back to the garage, the next incident was ready to occur. He was demonstrating that he thought HE was the victim here, it was everyone else causing all the problems.

As he reached a back door he knew the press could not follow him through, he pulled it open to see his Father waiting for him, clearly not amused. For all the jokes made about the earful this overgrown child was about to hear, it's plain that this successful, self made millionaire was nonetheless over the age of 21 and ready to let it go in one ear and out the other. As he always does with the race stewards when handed penalties. He's now trying to pass off his own accusations of racism over his penalties as a "Poor joke," expecting it to be laughed off. It's past time to stop laughing at any of this, to start taking it seriously. No matter how safe the cars are these days, people can still die in racing accidents. When the accident is caused by someone so callous as Hamilton, it's pure manslaughter. And racing officials who fail to take proper actions after so many warnings of this problem are his accessories.

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