Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day

It’s hard to believe that 14 years have slipped by since that HORRIFIC weekend in Imola, Italy… Where not one but two Formula 1 drivers met their fates, while even stranger yet, is the fact that I once stood nearly three feet away from one of these stricken heroes, none other than Ayrton Senna.

And it’s funny to me what we keep indelibly locked inside our memory banks, as I can still clearly see four of the seven Grand Prix drivers that passed thru my gaze that wonderful day in Phoenix, Arizona.

You see, this was my very first foray of attending a real honest to goodness Formula 1 race, having only been introduced to this magnificent form of motor racing two and a half years previously. Thus I found it excellent fortune for the state of Arizona to have miraculously landed a five year contract to host a round of the F1 circus beginning in 1989.

Being a stranger to the Downtown streets of Phoenix, nevertheless mi Madre dropped me off promptly first thing Friday morning, prior to the gates being opened at 7:30AM in order to spend the entire day watching these fabulous racing cars…

Yet, where to purchase my Admission ticket, Having made my way past the various persons trying to forcefully hand me free samples of Marlboro and Camel cigarettes, I approached the ticket booth. Yet, when I got to the window the lady told me; No, you can’t purchase a General Admission ticket here, you’ll need to go to the other ticket booth around the corner… Which was several thousand meters away…

So off I went in search of this mysterious second ticket booth and having found it, was somewhat bemused to be told; NO! You need to go back to the first ticket booth Sir. So, back I went, where I started to become somewhat incensed as I was informed that I indeed needed to go back to the ticket booth I’d just come from… And thus now knowing this stretch of the Grand Prix circuit quite well, made my way back to the other ticket booth, only to be told you know what!

Yet, this “Whose on First” routine had a silver lining in it for me, since said second ticket booth happened to be mere meters away from the open, non-administered entrance into the Formula 1 paddock. As these were the days of Pre-Qualifying when 37 F1 drivers were jockeying for 28 grid spots, with the lowest drivers on the grid being forced to fight their way into the day’s qualifying show.

Yet, just moments before turning around to go back again, I was simply blown away as the first of several of these modern day Gladiators approached. Thus, while standing in the entryway into the F1 paddock, I stood motionless, as the sports “God’s” walked towards me…

Transfixed in total disbelief, the reigning World Champion and future Three Time World Champion Ayrton Senna was walking straight towards me; “Oh My God!!!” Of course not having anything on me, i.e.; writing utensil, scrap of paper, race program, etc, HELL! I didn’t even have a Grand Prix ticket at the moment… I simply stood there dumbfounded watching this maestro of Formula 1 walk directly past me. Where he then stopped to sign an autograph…

Thus I can still vividly see him standing in tan Gucci loafers, blue jeans with an half inch silver belt and an orange sweatshirt with his credentials tucked inside… And as he turned his brown leather briefcase upside down to sign the request, I noticed a hurkin’ large bright gold watch on his left wrist, which looked like a Rolex to me… Yet, the part I found most strange about this whole encounter of frenzied autograph seeker’s was that absolutely ZERO attention was being paid to Senna’s compatriot, who was none other than Japanese F1 driver Aguri Suzuki. (But sadly, nobody bothered Aguri-san for an autograph!)

Then even more bizarre, I watched an Good ‘Ol Boy American who must of weighed nearly 350lbs BEAR HUG “The Professor,” while gleefully having’ his picture taken with the French racing ace Alain Prost.

Next, the scene became even more surreal, as I witnessed another Formula 1 driver seemingly primp himself in the midst of a crowd, which seemed totally unaware of who this overdressed European gentleman was? As I noted to myself that he was also adorned in Gucci loafers, tan slacks, a blue polo shirt with a gray cardigan sweater tied around his neck while striking a pose and looking very sheik. The man was none other than current Three Time World Champion Nelson Piquet!

But the next three drivers I witnessed are a bit hazy, as I think I saw Ivan Capelli and Martin “Billy Bob” Brundle saunter by individually, while last but not least to pass by my unbelievable vantage point was the Belgian Thierry Boutsen on his way into the paddock to prepare for the morning’s qualifying session…

Not being able to pick out any further F1 pilotes, I made a bee-line back for the original ticket booth with an air of urgency as I was positive Pre-Qualifying would soon be getting underway and I still had not been granted admittance into the track! Where I was finally able to purchase my $50 Three Day General Admission pass and scurry inside to watch the day’s activities, later thinking how cool is this? Standing in the middle of Downtown Phoenix in the middle of summer with an ice cold Fosters “Oil Can” in hand and the siren song of 28 Formula 1 land rockets shrieking past me!

Saturday would be even better as Hall convinced me to explore some more of the circuit and we luckily found ourselves watching about one half of the day’s morning qualifying session from the Press grandstand situated at the end of pit lane, until we were finally asked to leave since we didn’t have NO STINKIN’ Credentials… Thus we went off further exploring the tracks circuitous layout, and suddenly found ourselves face to face with the wailing Grand Prix machinery as I quickly snapped a few pic’s from an unauthorized vantage point behind the myriad of chain link fencing, as Ayrton Senna’s McLaren screamed past me.

Ironically that Sunday’s race held on June 4, 1989 in 104 degree heat was sadly the same day as the tragic and UNNECESSARY killings taking place in Tiananmen Square, while China is set to host this year’s Summer Olympics...

Unfortunately I decided NOT to attend the following year’s event, I mean C’mon, it’s gonna be there another four years, right? Thus, the last time I’d witness Ayrton Senna in the flesh, would be the 1991 USGP, which by now he’d become a source of unadulterated angst! Being known to anybody asking me about him as Arrogant! Although this would be the year of his final World Championship, the Brazilian was not in favour with myself, having taken my then favourite driver Alain Prost out of title contention multiple times and being very difficult to beat!

Thus unknowingly, I would be in “Los Wage$” that fateful weekend of 1994, dubiously known as Black Sunday, where I was attending the final Pantera Owner’s Club of America (POCA) Car Show to be held on Freemont Street and totally unaware of the tragedies that would befall the Motor Racing world…

The weekend would begin ominously by Rubens Barrichello monstrous crash on Friday, with his car rolling over and the Brazilian having swallowed his tongue while unconscious… As Barrichello would spend the rest of the weekend in hospital, But things would become even graver, as Roland Ratzenberger would loose his life during qualifying Saturday, as he was the perilous victim of a front wing failure at 200mph, hitting the (Gilles) Villeneuve wall at approximately 180mph… Before coming to a rest slumped over inside the cockpit of his Simtek Ford/Cosworth, being officially pronounced dead upon arriving at a nearby Bologni Hospital.

Yet, as we all know, this wasn’t the final tragedy of the weekend, as renown Triple World Champion Ayrton Senna would meet his maker on Sunday, May 1st, 1994 whilst leading the San Marino Grand Prix, from fierce rival Michael Schumacher.

The race had begun with JJ Letho’s stalled Benetton being struck by Pedro Lamy’s Lotus, as Lamy was unaware of Letho’s troubles until arriving at full speed and clipped the stationary Benetton, sending wheel and suspension components high above the catch fencing and landing upon four spectators. Thus the safety car was sent to fetch Senna while debris was removed from the track before Senna went straight off at Tamberello corner on lap six while being stalked by Schumacher…

Senna was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby Bologni Hospital where he’d also be pronounced dead later that evening and its been said that Senna’s stricken Williams was discovered to have an Austrian flag inside it in order for Senna to dedicate his perceived victory to the fallen Ratzenberger…

Having been fortunate enough to be entrusted to share the driving duties of transporting my good friend Roberto’s gorgeous 1984 De Tomaso Pantera GT5, while convoying with fellow Pantera enthusiast Bud, we’d been making a non-stop beeline North via the I-5 Super-slab and were totally unaware of the weekends tragedies. Upon having stopped to have breakfast in Portland, Oregon, Roberto’s wife Kimberly would break the news to us and Roberto and I were simply dumbstruck…

God Speed Ayrton!

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