Pocono, Sato and IndyCar’s Shadow: A Jungian Perspective

We all have a dark side. And so does IndyCar.

The IndyCar racing series has evolved significantly in recent decades and almost certainly for the better. The cars and tracks are both faster and safer for drivers, teams and spectators. Nowadays, helmets are worn by all crew members during pitstops, and we wonder why that wasn’t always the case. We take for granted SAFER barriers and HANS devices, while lamenting the deaths and injuries that might have been prevented in the past had they been available. And we look back at an era when a driver could be killed, the car repaired and another driver getting in and back out on track that same day, asking how we could could have been so cruel, heartless and inhumane.

What was once normal and acceptable is now looked upon as being abhorrent and unacceptable. Women were prohibited from entering Gasoline Alley, while at the same time, Linda Vaughn straddling a Hurst Shifter was great fun for the fans in the stands. Gone are the grid girls and trophy queens. Now we cringe in embarrassment at such things, so we put them in the past or pretend like they never happened.

But they did. These are all part of the history and DNA of the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar, whether we choose to accept them or not. 

These negative aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge are repressed into what Dr. Carl Jung termed, ‘the Shadow’: Out of sight, out of mind. Of course, they never actually go away, and under certain conditions, the shadow opens up to where we are forced to look in the mirror at our undesirable parts once again. Our denial is shattered, and instead of consciously dealing with these horrors, we find a convenient scapegoat on to which our collective shadow can be projected, blamed and punished.

This is exactly what happened in the violent crash this weekend at Pocono Raceway. Halfway through the first race lap, the entire IndyCar family watched in disbelief as our fears surrounding the event were realized in an instant. But before the carbon fiber dust settled, before we knew the status of the drivers involved, we already had our man marked and shamed. From the broadcast booth to the Twitterverse, a collective finger pointed at the evildoer, and in unison, we shouted “Sato!”

Without the benefit of a replay from different angles, before any of the drivers were interviewed, Takuma Sato was tried, convicted and sentenced. Yes, the Japanese driver has had a history of causing crashes, but he has transcended his past to become a much safer and more respected driver, going on to win the biggest race of them all. 

Yet the amount of vitriol that was spewed at him was palpably immediate and intense, emanating from all quarters. It was as if all our pent-up anger and hatred were sitting on deck, just waiting for the right moment, the right person to blame, and here he was. Sato. And it brought out the worst. Personal insults and racial slurs were directed his way, but that was just low-hanging fruit for the knuckle-draggers among us. Yet even our better side called for his immediate suspension or even banishment from racing altogether.

Then the in-car cameras and broadcast replays began to tell a different story and that made things worse. While it was easy to blame a ‘Kamakazi’ driver, it was unthinkable to suggest Captain America also shared in the responsibility, and impossible to believe that the one who got taken out also played a hand. That’s not how a shadow projection is supposed to work, but there is was, raw and unfiltered for us all to see. 

For weeks prior, the broadcast entity bombarded us with exciting images of cars at Pocono going “5, 6, 7 wide!” Yet, what we ended up with were three cars running inches apart, right next to the wall, leaving a country mile of open road on the other side. Three cars crashing into each other on a straightaway on the widest track on the circuit. Three seasoned professionals. All three of them Indianapolis 500 winners. On the first lap of a 200 lap race.

When Sato could no longer take the fall, we were left with the uncomfortable truth that championship contender Alexander Rossi had been going backwards since the start and Ryan Hunter-Reay, his teammate, gave him absolutely no margin of error as he attempted the pass. All three showed lack of judgement, or rather, incredibly poor judgement in causing a serious crash that never should have happened in the first place. But we certainly couldn’t blame these two guys like we could with Sato.

So we turned our culprit to the track and made Pocono Raceway the scapegoat. After all, our beloved Justin Wilson was killed there in 2015 and everyone’s favorite rookie, Robert Wickens, was involved in a life-threatening accident that left him paralyzed the previous year. Yes, it was the race track’s fault; IndyCar should never return. It’s just too dangerous.

This is our shadow opening up once again. 

We hate that racing is dangerous, yet racing is dangerous. We wouldn’t like it if it weren’t. We enjoy the spectacle and excitement yet deny our guilt for loving such a potentially deadly sport. Deaths and serious injuries are fewer than ever in the current era, and maybe we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking it’s 100% safe. Until we remember that it isn’t, nor will it ever be. 

We, as IndyCar fans, drivers, teams, tracks and series, can no longer hide from our heritage, nor can we deny our past, especially those aspects that are out of step with today’s technology, mindset and social norms. These things are uncomfortable and difficult to accept, but they are all part of our 100 year plus tradition. 

The Indy 500 ran its first race almost 10 years before women in America could vote. Since then it has survived through two World Wars, prohibition, civil rights and all the other changes that have transformed our culture and society. If IndyCar wishes to continue into the future, we need to incorporate more than protective windscreens and hybrid engines. We must accept our past, warts and all, keep it out of the shadow of denial, and wear it proudly like a bronze badge of courage, honoring the sacrifices that have been made to make it the sport we love today.

“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow?
I must have a dark side also if I am to become whole.”
~C.G. Jung