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Triumph and Tragedy

There are some things that you just have to work your way through.  This is my attempt to work through one of those things.

On a bright and glorious Sunday morning at Indianapolis, I watched a young man die.  I didn’t even know what I was seeing until long afterward.

During the warm-up lap of the first race of the day, the USGPRU race featuring 12- to 18-year-old riders, one rider somehow fell off of his bike and was struck by a rider behind him.  13-year-old Peter Lenz sustained serious blunt force trauma and succumbed to his injuries.

Photo courtesy of The Superbike School

I didn’t know what was happening, really.  As often happens at live sports events, I was looking somewhere else, maybe talking to Bill or something, when I heard the “Ohhhh!” from the crowd and looked over to see riders on the ground.  I could tell that it was taking a long time getting him onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, but that sometimes happens for various reasons.  I don’t think there was ever an announcement to the crowd – but I was wearing earplugs for the thunderous noise anyway and might have missed one if it was made.  Not that it necessarily was the right thing to do to the crowd at the track anyway.

Photo courtesy of MotoGP Galleries

It’s a harsh, harsh reminder of the dangerous realities of the sport that I’ve followed avidly for seven years.  It doesn’t happen often – the last time it happened on such a world stage was the tragic death of Daijiro Kato (pictured at right) in 2003 – but riders can and do die doing this thing that I love.  Coming home after a near-ecstatic weekend, checking on the condition of the injured rider, and learning the worst…it’s beyond “sobering.”  It’s an outright shock – a deep, thorough shock to my system.

I will admit that for a few hours last night it cast a pall over the entire weekend in my memory, and in fact made me reconsider my fandom of the sport in general.  The fact that I pay money and cheer for something that resulted in the death of a thirteen year old boy and the utter traumatization of the twelve year old boy that accidentally hit him isn’t something that is easy to digest.  At all.  And I hope it never becomes so, for any of us – that none of us take for granted that people risk their limbs, their health, and their lives not only for money or fame or pure joy of competition, but also for the entertainment of us, the spectators.

As I lay there in the dark of night last night, with the sounds of motorcycles still ringing in my ears, I thought of many things.  Of how tragic it is that a promising young man died doing what he loved;  about the future of the sport; about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s on-track death and the impact upon the sport of the high-profile loss of one of its superstars; but mostly I found myself thinking of Eight Belles.

When Eight Belles was euthanized at trackside at Churchill Downs following her second-place run at the 134th Kentucky Derby, I felt a similar feeling of horror and disbelief – and similarly held my wife as she sobbed.  I also felt that same sort of guilt, that my participation as a spectator (this time on television rather than in person) somehow meant that I shared some portion of the blame for the death of a competitor.  Ultimately, though, I was able to enjoy horse racing again.  I even visited the Downs, the scene of the crime, and was able to enjoy my time spent there.  But not without having that little bit of concern in the back of my mind…the worry that something horrible would happen again.

Peter Lenz’ death is not directly comparable to that of Eight Belles.  Eight Belles, for all her beauty, was an animal and not a human being.  While I’m not an animal hater, I am not a person who places the lives of animals upon a level plane with that of human beings.  But, also, Peter chose to compete in his race of his own free will – he was by all accounts a great young racer, with a bright future ahead of him in the sport, and he loved what he did.  That puts things in another perspective.

His father’s words on Peter’s Facebook page brought some peace to my heart:

He passed doing what he loved and had his go fast face on as he pulled onto the track. The world lost one of its brightest lights today. God Bless Peter and the other rider involved. #45 is on another road we can only hope to reach.

After a while of soul-searching, I’ll go back to Indianapolis again next year and enjoy myself.  And I’ll look back on the fun memories from this weekend without a dark cloud hanging over everything.  I think that’s what Peter’s family wants, and what Peter himself would have wanted.

But I’ll probably let my DVR’ed footage of this weekend’s races sit unwatched for a little while before I can bring myself back to yesterday.

And I’ll never watch another motorcycle race without remembering the name of Peter Lenz.

My thoughts are with Xavier Zayat, the other rider involved in the accident, and his family as well.

And my sincerest condolences to the Lenz family.

Godspeed to Peter, and thanks.


7 Responses

  1. Tragic to lose someone so young, but I think you nailed it when you said he did have a choice and understood the risk involved (as much as an “invincible” 13 year old can, I guess) and he died doing what he loved most.

    I also remember when Eight Belles fell and how they replayed that damn clip over and over again. Cried every time I saw it.

    All I can say is “I agree.” Well, I didn’t cry every time I saw Eight Belles, but I damn near did.

  2. Oh, TB. I’m so sorry to read about this. My heart just sank, I can’t even imagine how it felt to be there while it was happening. I do understand the sentiment of going out doing what you love, but he was just so young. My heart goes out to his family, fans and those who loved him.

    Big hugs to you, too.

    I’ll be okay. It was just a dreadful thing to happen, and I feel kind of fucked up for the sort of detached way I was viewing it at the time since I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the situation.

  3. His father’s quote made me cry. I didn’t know about Peter’s death until I checked my Twitter feed for mentions (I figured you’d Tweet me about something this morning). The news cast a sobering pall over the weekend’s memories. None of us, watching through the binoculars, realized what was going on. And it wasn’t track noise – they didn’t make any announcement at all. It’s all just heartbreaking.

    I know.

  4. Very well put!
    I had no idea at the time what we saw that morning when I saw him sit up and wave his arms I thought everything was ok and then they both were down.
    I have not been able to stop thinking about this and wonder why as Tiff said we only watched and forgot to offer a prayer.

    Have sunny days and podiums in MotoHeaven Peter Lenz!

    Agreed all the way around. It’s a weird feeling of complicity.

    Really, his father’s words have done as much to help me move on as anything. If his family can reach out to the other rider in this time of horrible grief, then I can move on as well.

  5. To the Livejournal folks who are finding this through Jadesymb’s post, I can see that most of you are pretty anti-motorcycle-racing and/or anti-motorcycle to begin with, and so we’re approaching the problem from different poles to begin with.

    Under these circumstances, I can not argue in the least with a person who says “no way will any child of mine participate in this activity while I have the power to stop it.” It was and still is a horrible thing and I’m still struggling to come to terms with it myself.

    However, some boys grow up around motorcycles and motorcycle racing and it’s all they ever want to do, just the way some boys grow up around baseball or football. They absorb it by osmosis, they develop personal heroes, and they want to follow in their footsteps.

    I believe that organized motorcycle roadracing is no more dangerous than motocross, for any given age group. Statistically, I’d say it’s also no more dangerous than football – I can name offhand more deaths from football-related injuries (including heatstroke during practice) than I can motorcycle racing.

    No activity is 100% safe, and it is particularly horrifying when a child dies under any circumstances. I’m lucky in that my son is interested in motorcycle racing but not in competing (not interested in football at all), so I don’t have to make those decisions myself.

    If it was his life’s dream to be a motorcycle racer, though, I think I’d have a hard time standing in his way. That’s just one guy’s opinion, and as I acknowledged in the beginning, I think the fact that I’m approaching it as a motorcycle person has a lot to do with my conclusion.

    Thanks for stopping by, and thanks to Jen for linking up and starting the discussion. No matter what your opinion, it is a good discussion to have.

  6. Thanks to Dys for finding this Indy Star article, which sums up my viewpoint fairly well.

  7. And one last time, a fantastic point of view from David Emmett at Motomatters. Nice to hear from someone who actually met the young fellow.

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