When a pilot slammed into the ground at the Reno Air Races last week, killing eight fans and injuring many more, there was an understandable question in the media about whether the sport justified the risks.
The pilots at the races willingly take risks about which they are well informed. That reminds me of the Isle of Man TT races. The fans, however, probably didn't go to the races that day with a tiny voice in their heads saying, "This may be the last time I ever pack a thermos and sandwiches. This may be the last time I kiss my wife good-bye."
For the pilots, I know, the risks informs their sport. They don't race in order to take risks (which is a common misperception amongst casual onlookers.) But risk gives the choice to participate its significance. This is a complex subject, one worthy of an entire book, not a blog post.
It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of last week's crash are for the Reno event. Unlike the TT, which is a huge inconvenience for the sizable minority of Isle of Man residents who don't love motorcycles, there's not an established constituency of people in Reno politicking to have the races banned anyway. But the news coverage of the Reno disaster reminds me that, after David Jeffries' high-profile fatality at the 2003 TT, I realized that the TT races are one high-profile disaster away from being discontinued.
In the wake of DJ's death, the Auto-Cycle Union distanced itself from the TT races, and the Isle of Man government effectively took over the event. In the last decade or so, they've tried to make it both safer for riders and fans, and less inconvenient for those residents who count among its detractors. So there's more air fence (although there's not enough air fence on earth to make the course truly safe) morning practice has been eliminated, and in general total rider/mileage is being throttled back.
The Isle of Man government and the TT committee know that they can sweep the deaths of anonymous TT backmarkers under the rug, but that carnage among the fans is harder to rationalize. So, from a fan's perspective, the most visible impact of the changes at the TT is that prime spectating areas are now off limits to fans. The first time I returned to the Isle of Man as a fan after racing there, I resented the fact that I was not going to be allowed to stand and watch pretty much anywhere I wanted. Those changes haven't actually eliminated racers careening off track into fans, but they've definitely reduced the risk of a Reno-style disaster.
I'm of two minds about such changes. There's a part of me that would like to rise to the challenge of making the TT as safe as possible, in order to preserve it as long as possible. But there's another part of me that wants to keep it as it always was -- an anachronistic, gritty, gladiatorial competition in which risk, and death, were always near for competitors and (literally) near for the fans, too.
I guess the Reno event, for the moment at least, suggests that moving fans back from the action is a good thing.