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Soup of This Day #87: And Grace Will Lead Us Home

October 21, 2011

No Child Left Behind Signing
Then Australian Cricket Captain, Ricky Ponting promises to leave no child off the team bus while on tour – Photo: Public Domain, 2002. The Public has no affiliation with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

The number 87 is considered unlucky by, predominantly Australian, cricketers. This is because a.) Cricketers, like most sportspeople are inherently superstitious, and b.) Because scoring 100, called a century, is a significant milestone for a batsman in Cricket. It is a relatively rare feat that for example has been achieved just 51 times in 298 innings via the willow blade of the Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar.

Which admittedly sounds a little like a cartoon kung-fu scenario.

Nonetheless Sachin is the quite serious record-holder, ahead of Australian Ricky Ponting, 39 times in 263 innings. Ponting has had to deal with the handicap of looking like George W Bush so plainly his figure should be graded up a little. Or down.

Regardless of Ponting’s chimpanzee-like features each of his centuries has been an epic test of skill and endurance. They typically take some hours and in general, roughly twice as many deliveries as there are runs. This means that Ponting will face a small hard cricket ball being bowled at him 200 times, with the ‘cherry’ (Australian slang for a cricket ball) reaching speeds of up to 160kmph (100mph). It takes a lot of everything – effort, time and luck – to get a century.

Which is where the number 87 comes in. If you’re on 87 then you’re close to getting your ton (Scoring a century) and so you’re bound to be a little nervy anyway, but then you notice that 87 is… tremulous shock… 13 away from 100. And we all know what 13 means right?

Actually I don’t really. I do know that it is generally considered unlucky, as in Friday 13th, but I can’t tell you the derivation of this numerical superstition. Personally I don’t get the Friday bit of that either – Friday is the last day of the working week, the gateway to 2 days of not being at work, and quite frankly that makes it golden, regardless of the calendar day it falls on. I could Google this but let’s not and say we did.

So 87 is unlucky, the devil’s number, and a portent of gloom over-arches this post, the 87th Soup of This Day.

A handful of days ago I wrote Soup of This Day #85. It was largely about motorsport and in it I talked about how you can generally tell if an accident involves serious injury or not. On the next morning this theory got tested for me when I sat down to breakfast and fired up the news on the iPad. The front page was a large photo capturing detail of an Indycar accident at the series finale, Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There were 15 cars in the incident but the photo captured bits of maybe 5 or 6. 2 of the cars were on fire and 2 were airborne and cartwheeling. Without even looking at the headline it was pretty obvious that someone, possible more than 1 person, was in serious trouble.

Don’t think that I’m claiming any kind of supernatural prediction skills here and I’m not the harbinger of doom or anything. I didn’t even know that the race was on. Others did and had grave doubts about safety – It’s a very small track, just 1.5 miles around the oval and the field included 34 cars, 1 more than raced at the much larger Indianapolis 500 (2.5 miles) earlier this year. Those 34 cars would be racing around that tiny oval, tucked in wheel-to-wheel at 225mph. A number of the drivers expressed concerns pre-race that the track was unsafe. The dad of 1 driver, Tomas Scheckter, hadn’t limited his concern to just this race. He had wanted his son to quit Indycar ‘for a while’. Given that Tomas’ dad is former Formula 1 ace, Jody Scheckter, then you’d have to say his is an informed opinion.

In the end the fears turned to reality. It didn’t take long, on the 11th lap someone touched wheels with someone else and a chain reaction of carnage was set off, with 15 cars ultimately involved, including that of Tomas Scheckter. Many ended up in the wall, some of them on fire, while others were halted still in the middle of the track. A couple got airborne, cartwheeling into the catch fence above the barriers and it was 1 of these that Englishman Dan Wheldon was driving.

Wheldon was a 33 year old racer, a veteran of the Indycar circuit, which he had raced since 1999. In 2005 he was the series champion and the winner of the iconic Indianapolis 500. Earlier this year he took his 2nd win at the Brickyard, despite not having a regular series drive for the year. For this last race in Las Vegas he had gone out for a promotional bonus. The deal was for any privateer driver, who would start from the rear of the grid and if they could overcome this and win then they would see a $5m payday. Wheldon might not have had a regular driving gig in 2011 but he was good and he was seen as a real shot for the money.

Only lap 13 happened and Wheldon got airborne. It’s thought that as he hit the fence something came into the cockpit of his car, possibly his right front wheel. When his car came back to Earth he was suffering from serious injuries, later deemed to be unsurvivable. He was airlifted to hospital and there, pronounced dead.

Miraculously he was the only 1. Others, including Australian championship contender Will Power also flipped. Power, like Wheldon hit the fence but unlike the Englishman, the Australian got out of the mess with a sore back. The key difference it seems was that Power managed to avoid debris in the cockpit. Likewise that Scheckter kid got out ok, prompting his dad to proclaim:

‘Hopefully this will knock some sense into him and realise there is more to life. It really isn’t worth it.’

This has become an issue for open-wheeler racing of late. The cars at Formula 1 and Indycar level are engineered for extreme conditions. The vehicles are designed to protect the driver in crashes at high speeds with heavy impacts so the driver is fully enclosed.

Except at the top, where the protection is afforded by an air scoop and a helmet. From NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson as part of a call to stop Indycar racing on high speed ovals:

‘Their average was 225? I’ve never been 225 mph in my life — and that’s their average around an oval. They are brave men and women that drive those things. There’s very little crumple zone around the driver, it’s an open cockpit and then you add open wheels — it’s just creating situations to get the car off the ground at a high rate of speed. And you can’t control the car when it’s off the ground.’

In 2009 Henry Surtees was killed when a wheel bounced into his cockpit during a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch in England. Just 6 days later at the 2009 Hungarian F1 GP Brazilian Felipe Massa was injured when a spring fell off compatriot Rueben Barichello’s car and bounced up to hit him in the head.

Earlier this year the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) conducted a series of tests on cockpit covers. They fired a wheel at, 1st a standard windshield and then at a fighter jet canopy.

The results were astounding. While the windshield deflected the wheel up and away there was still potential for damage. The canopy however deformed slightly and almost seemed to palm off the wheel, keeping the driver space clear of debris and danger. For those thinking this was a fluke – That wheel weighed 25kg, a good equivalent of that used in F1 and Indycar and it was fired at approximately 220mph.

Critics of canopies argue that they don’t have them in motorcycle racing. Henry Surtees dad, John Surtees, would know this better than most. As well as being the F1 World Champ in 1964 he was also the 500cc Motorcycle World Champ for 4 years, 1956, 58-60. Australian Casey Stoner is chasing him in 1 of those categories only, as on Sunday, less than 24hrs before the cars took to that ill-fated Las Vegas track, he took out his 5th consecutive Australian MotoGP and his 2nd World Championship. It was also his birthday and early on he got himself a gift when nearest title contender, Jorge Lorenzo, crashed in the warmup and partially severed a finger.

Motor racing is a tough business. Partially severed fingers and objects in cockpits really pale in comparison to the true cost of things going wrong though: Dan Wheldon was a married and had 2 sons, 1 born in February of 2009 and the 2nd who was born in March of this year. His family will now go on without a husband and a father.

Getting bowled for 87 might be unfortunate but losing your dad at 7 months and at 32 months is tragic beyond compare.

And Grace Will Lead Us Home

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