Grace

In a year that will not be remembered for its examples of grace, especially public grace, the sports world provided one at a time when anger and giant disappointment could have produced an example of ugliness.

Columbia racing driver Carl Edwards showed us a prime example of grace in this graceless year. For those who do not follow automobile racing as we do, here’s some background. .

Carl has been competing at NASCAR’s highest level for a dozen years.  He has finished second twice in the championship standings.  He is one of four extremely talented drivers who compete at this level for Joe Gibbs, the former NFL coach whose teams won three Super Bowls.

NASCAR determines is champion each year by taking the top sixteen drivers in points after the first twenty-six races and putting them through a series of elimination rounds until four drivers remain in the last race of the season to compete for the championship.  Carl Edwards made it to the final four by winning a race in the semifinal round at a time when he was on the verge of elimination because an earlier crash had left him far out of contention.

One of his competitors in the last race was teammate Kyle Busch, who had won the championship in a miracle season last year after missing the first eleven races with injuries.  Another competitor was Jimmie Johnson, who was hoping to win the championship for a record-tying seventh time.   The other competitor was Joey Logano, a young driver who has matured and succeeded driving for Roger Penske, one of the biggest names in motorsports competition.  Now, let’s set the scene:

The championship is within Carl’s grasp with just ten laps left after the racers have been slowed under a caution flag caused by an incident with another car.  He is on the inside of the front row, a prime place to reassert his leadership when the green flag is waved to go racing again.   If he can get a good jump, he’ll be running in clean air—a critical factor in cars designed to take advantage of aerodynamics—and headed for that elusive title.

Logano knows he has one shot at getting past him on that restart.  He dives low going into the first turn. Very low.  Carl knows his only hope is to drop low in the track to block Logano.   The front of Logano’s car touches the rear bumper of Edwards’ car, sending Edwards into the inside wall, then bouncing back across the track through traffic where he is hit from behind with such force by another driver that his car goes up on the other car’s hood before spinning off into the outside wall.  All hope of the championship is gone after what he called “the race of my life up to then.”

Few of us ever know the pressures of competing for anything at this level. And the intensity of “this level” is hard for any of us to imagine.  There are no halftimes, no timeouts, no free throws where you can catch your breath.  There are no shift changes as in hockey.  There are no innings that are split into two parts.  This is three or four hours in a fire-protective suit, sitting in a metal oven at temperatures of one-hundred-thirty degrees, travelling at frightening speeds (to you and me) surrounded by thirty-nine other people seeking the same thing you are seeking. And you are doing it at three times the speed limit with no rumble stripes to remind you that you have one of your wheels an inch from where it should be.

You are so close to being the very best in this sport that you can touch it.  And then in two seconds you are sitting in your stopped, wadded-up, smoking car knowing that everything you have worked for during the last nine months is now impossible.  One of your competitors has wrecked your car and your hopes.

NASCAR requires drivers whose cars crash out of a race to go to an infield care hospital to be checked for injuries, including concussions.  Track workers escort the driver from the wreckage of their car to an ambulance which whisks them away.  But that didn’t happen with Carl Edwards, who watched a replay of the crash on a big video screen that tracks have, and then walked with his NASCAR escort through the pits to Joey Logano’s pit.

That is not normally a good sign.  Angry words are often exchanged or shouted.  We’ve seen punches thrown.

Carl Edwards climbed to the top of a stand where Logano’s crew chief and others were sitting.  And he told them the crash was entirely his fault, that he wished Logano well, and shook hands with the guys on Logano’s pit box. “That’s just racing,” he told them. “Good luck to you guys.”

In an interview after getting checked at the infield hospital, he said, “I pushed the issue as far as I could because I figured that was the race there…I couldn’t go to bed tonight and think that I gave him that lane.” Logano finished second in the race behind Johnson, who dodged the crash and led the last two laps for become champion for the seventh time.

“We were racing for the championship and that’s the race,” said Logano afterwards.  And he echoed Carl Edwards, “That’s just racing.”

After the roar of the race, after the take-no-prisoners competition for their sport’s highest honor the neither achieved—

there was grace,

a reminder in this graceless time that the quality still is within us.  And it is not demeaning to show it.

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