In the Arena…


Words by Tom McCarthy

Tom Peterson was knocked unconscious while racing his drag bike at New England Dragway on Saturday, May 5, 2018. A big wheelstand did not end well and he cracked open his oil pan upon landing, then the spilled oil caused him to lose control of the drag bike resulting in a violent crash. On Monday, two days later; he was out buying a better helmet.


In the arena of life, where contests are waged with blood spilled, such a field of honor is not a place for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit. A combative contest, whether for duty, self-preservation or advancement, is a field honor afforded only the few with heart enough to step into the arena. The greater the sacrifices and the danger element involved, the greater the glory afforded the victor.


Glory, if there is such a thing, is sought by some, to bring meaning to their life.


While some people are content to pay their bills, fetch groceries, pet the dog, kick the cat, watch the 7 PM news and be in bed by 10 PM, such people will likely never set foot in an arena. Comfort is a way of life for some people, the land of lethargy for others.


Then there are the achievers and the over-achievers who are out to make a name for themselves. They seek something more out of life. These are the game changers. No one ever changed the world eating a salad while pondering the meaning of life as the wife sits quietly nearby with the remote in hand.


If not for the explorers, the achievers, where would we all be today? It’s the people who step into the arena in life, who take the risks, who have changed the world we now live in. Not everyone is meant for competition, where danger is the constant companion.


Consider if you will the premise that people are seldom who they say they are. Anyone can write a good resume, but that’s NOT who someone is. Truth be told, people are best defined by what they do and are best measured by what they have accomplished in life. In short, people are not who they say they are – they are what they do. Someone who is willing to risk it all is someone who can achieve great things.


But there is a price for this. Sometimes people who achieve great things often do so at great cost. Only the person in the arena can tell you if that cost is equal to or greater than the consequences. The bottom line is this: only the risk takers, who with great fortitude, put their lives on the line, can achieve great accomplishments. Only someone willing to risk it all is deserving to win it all.


These truths are especially so in motor sport racing.


It’s no secret that motor sport racing is inherently dangerous. I’ve written it before and I’ll put it out there again “speed magnifies everything.” This statement applies to everything from the cost of building a racing machine to the cost of competition; the greater the speeds, the greater the results. You can run up a tally sheet against the cost of building a record-setting motor, or the damage to interpersonal relationships caused by the sacrifices necessary to achieve a perceived great goal in a class of competition. The results will still have the same relative sum – the greater the speeds, the greater the costs.


Once you enter the human element into the equation, this is where it gets personal. Because anyone can replace a broken component, a wrecked racing machine, but not a wrecked life or worse yet, a loss of life. There is no replacing someone once they are gone.


Yes, the cost of building the world’s fastest (insert machine of choice here) is high, but the threat of the loss of life is also right there on the tally sheet next to the column labeled “sacrifices necessary to go racing. There are check boxes for divorce, credit card debt, unpaid bills, no family life, lack of home maintenance, etc. When its race weekend, all be damned; time to go racing.


The old cliché’s of “No guts, no glory” and “No pain, no gain” are dragged about addressing this topic like worn out tires and thrust into conversations ad nauseum. Forget about your resume and your old worn out cliché’s: show people who you really are. Motor sport racing IS dangerous and yes, people do die out there. I’m not defending that, nor trying to justify it, but it is part of the sport of racing; the risk is real. The arena of speed-based competitions is NOT safe, it never was.


There is no guarantee that a racer will come back after a high-speed pass down a drag strip or a pass down a Land Speed Racing course. It’s not about how fast did someone go or what did they win. It’s about the personal investment, the struggle, and the cost for the glory of reaching a new level – what did it take to get there. A racer is not great because they won X number of championships. Greatness comes from how much did someone sacrifice to get to the higher level, how difficult was the struggle. And know this: the greater the speed, the greater the danger.


If the measure of accomplishment is to achieve greatness and glory, there can be no glory without great danger accompanied by great effort. With that great danger comes great risk as an inescapable companion. In this arena, failure or mistakes can lead to paying the ultimate price. Only in sports where the risk of death is real can one appreciate this level of risk.  Take for example bullfighting.


In that arena, there is only death and destruction. Either the Matador De Toros will be taken from the arena badly mauled on a stretcher or the bull will be dragged from the arena dead, with one or both ears cut off. Either way, this is a pure contest of a fight to the bitter end. The bull may well rag-doll the bullfighter or the Torero may plunge his sword deep between the shoulders of the bull and pierce its beating heart. If the Torero is victorious, he is rewarded with the ear of the bull, but that’s not his true reward.


Every time a bullfighter enters the arena, he knows he has faced death and if he lives to walk away, he has beaten death, for this is the only way he can walk out of that arena alive. His true reward is the glory of his life; that he lives to fight another day. His accomplishments include not just the ending of the bull’s life -- no bullfighter truly wants to see a dead body on the end of his sword -- but to face death and rise above it is to feel most alive on a level the meek can never know.


The Toreador Juan Jose Padilla, known as “El Parata”, has been gored over 38 times and still he walks proudly back into the arena when it’s time. Once he was gored through his skull by a bull’s horn and as he recalled the incident said, “It felt like my head exploded.” The incident resulted in his left eye hanging out of its socket and his face being ripped in half. A 1200-pound raging bull will do that if given the chance. So will a 1200-pound Top Fuel motorcycle or a 2500-pound race car.


Five months after Juan Jose was gored through the head, he was back in the arena. His fans went wild upon his return, the other Matador De Toros held him above their heads and carried him about the arena to show the world that this man rose above his adversity, overcame his fear and ascended to greatness. It is said that in Spain that night, he was on every news channel. The following day, his name was in most every newspaper in the country. Untold thousands of fans looked up to him then and still do to this day.

Don Garlits in “Swamp Rat 13” 


In the sport of drag racing, Big Daddy Don Garlits once blew his race car in two and half of his right foot went with it. During his recovery he went on to design and build a drag car that put the engine behind the driver, to prevent this from ever happening again. He then went on with this design to win numerous racing championships. Today all Top Fuel dragsters are of a rear-engine design and Don Garlits is a motorsport legend – most deservedly so.


In the arena, the danger and the risks are real. The challenge is facing that danger and giving it all you can, come what may. If one is successful, the rewards are an intense life, the glory of high achievement, and hard work followed by more hard work. There is no great reward without great risk.


I firmly believe that to win everything in life, you must first be willing to give everything you’ve got to your endeavor. Half-hearted is no heart at all, but a vain attempt at life. If one is to roll the dice with death, if one’s number comes up, then so be it. Some say the meek shall inherit the earth. This may be true, but they better stay the hell off the race track and out of the arena. 



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