Failure to Launch


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2009 has not been the sort of NASCAR season that Kyle Busch anticipated. Having set a record 21 total wins last season in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck competition, eight weeks before the Chase he has 10 wins in the three Series. He’s dominating in Nationwide competition but is currently in 10th place in the Sprint Cup standings with a very small edge over Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth just behind.

In the reckoning of Kyle Busch, for whom winning is everything and second place a Bronx cheer from the bosomy harlot of fate, this season “a disaster.” When Kyle Busch wins, he is a jocular and verbose interview; when he loses, he takes his fury out on his team and clams up in public.

Perhaps it is not the thrill of victory but the anxiety over losing which drives Kyle Busch. Failure to win is the shadow which chases him around the track. It out-mans his victories, which, despite racking up so many of them, failed to garner him a championship in any of the series last year. No doubt he’s one of the best drivers out there – Jeff Gordon said earlier in the season that Kyle Busch was one of the most talented drivers he’d ever gone up against. Winning isn’t Kyle Busch’s problem. It’s losing.

Discussion about Kyle’s talents as well as his sins rage on in the shadow draft of all the talk of what’s wrong with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since the Daytona 500, when Dale Jr. wrecked half the field including Kyle making a spurious move to pass, it’s been on between the two, and between opinionators of every stripe. The communal talk balloons above the two are like colossal summer storms, each with their own troubled, turbulent interior, full of flash and thunder: a pissing contest between the tribe of the bad and the bummed.

For different reasons, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have not had the season either dreamed, and the media and fans have spilled oceans of ink figuring out why.

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Of course, NASCAR is to blame too, the big bad daddy who decided to go for the big bucks and left its children at home to squabble over the meager pickings of what’s left to love in racing. And there’s the economy, shaking the whole automobile enterprise so fundamentally that love of cars is a more rarefied thing, an expensive hobby.

Cars are also being marginalized by the Internet -– as Michael O’Donohue has said, you don’t need a cool car to get chicks any more, there are hundreds of ‘em who will buy your bullshit on Facebook and MySpace. Virtual racin’ online and in video games provide all of the naked illicit thrills that just get you jailtime or a wheelchair on the real road.

A season, then, of many wrongs, or of many things never quite working out. The generic car keeps the oval playing field so level, despite its banked turns, that sameness makes the differences count for little. It gets down to how much a team has to spend on the infinitesimals which accrete into an edge. It’s said that Hendrick motorsports spent 10 years and 10 million dollars to get a few more horsepower out of its oil pump. That’s a helluva lot for so little a gain, but these days a few more horses under the hood spell the difference between Jimmie Johnson and, say, Kasey Kahne, a great driver in a Dodge who’s never quite competitive enough.

Indeed, the small stuff counts for too much, and wins count but not greatly, so that drivers like Kyle Busch who care too much about winning races drive too foolhardily in pursuit of them, and rail at their teams when their cars fail to win a race, and the spirit is lousy, like a cheap whiskey which can deliver a buzz but leaves in its wake a really nasty hangover.

And in the great male hemisphere where performance is everything (how many junk emails do you get every day with message lines like “Because she wants it” and “Semi-flaccid is a disaster”?), racers are revered both for their derring-do as well as extras like smarts, looks, promotional clout and stunning bedmates.

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Kyle Busch with fiancée Samantha, Kurt Busch with wife Eva: to the Busch brothers, size matters (though we’re not sure it’s such a big deal to Eva, if she’s shown here sizing up her mate)

Drivers are testosterone personified, the hormone of steely intent which pounds its way home with every weapon at hand. Winning is hitting the grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, it’s turning over two spades to complete a straight flush in the Texas Hold ‘Em final at the World Series of Poker, it’s kicking the ass of a rival so you can drag the big-hootered babe you were fighting over back to the cave by her hair.

Winning is everything; and so, according to testosterone’s primordial rule, losing is by contrast the doom of the species. Failure to launch is emasculation’s jeer and premature ejaculation’s emptying balloon in our ears, a fear which pervades the psychic forest we must cross through every day.

Failure to launch is Sprint Cup girls in asexual nose-to-toes jumpsuits, it’s 480 laps of formation driving where passes only occur in the pits, it’s foreign cars racing in NASCAR, its Kyle Busch finishing 35th instead of 1st, it’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting way back there and finishing even further back, it’s all of the empty seats in the grandstands, it’s the irrelevance of stock car racing in all of its wealth.

Failure to launch even affects winning, the single end point of every race, too often handed to some lucky Joe just because someone else’s fuel strategy dried up, or the lead two cars wrecked duking it out in a swamp of testoteroneor, because the heavens decided to open right then.

Failure to launch is a predicament which seems to underlie everything in racin’ these days.

But whatttyagonnado? That’s who the bums of the failing contemporary underworld of the Sopranos would put it.

Whattayagonnado?

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Whattayagonnado? is technology’s way of handling the vicissitudes of fate and Nature. The scientific method is a means of penetrating a secret and then mastering it, drumming up an answer (or theory) and then assaulting it with data to prove it’s right or not right enough. Science got us to the high-tech present, with its ability to figure nature out and then change just about everything about it. (Except, alas, our human nature, to which no amount of penis-enhancement or steroids or tattoos have made the slightest dent on performance in the mortal clutch.)

Like the little engine that could, science has transformed us: From Ugh the hunter-gatherer of the Stone Age who was terrified of everything that bumped in the night, to Neo, the virtual warrior of The Matrix, where night is a machine-dominated future whose dream keeps us thinking it’s good old 1999 while the electromechanics of our bodies serve as nuclear fuel for the enormous turbines which keep the machines of 2199 whirring away.

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Ugh the Neanderthal, sweatin’ bullets; Neo the New Guy, virtually stopping bullets, or messin’ with the code for their virtual assault.

Some dream, huh. But do we fault the technology, or the method of conquest which sill motivates our inner Ugh to pick up a stone and fashion it into a missile? Whaddayagonnado? may keep Kyle Bush’s mechanics at work late into the night, but it may have more to do with the way Kyle Busch handles himself behind the wheel.

Jimmie Johnson’s three consecutive Sprint Cup championships are a grand sonata on the method of driver and crew chief and team improving a race car’s performance slowly over the season until it becomes nigh-unbeatable; the changes are incremental and suffer the usual accidents of nature (a fuel gambit gone wrong at Michigan and rain fell at the Daytona 500).

For Kyle Busch, whaddayagonado? is an unanswerable Zen koan, up to him to figure out, team and track and field bedamned; Jimmie Johnson –- selected, for the second year in a row, as Best Driver at ESPN’s ESPY Awards on July 17) -– translates whaddayagonado? into team smarts and championships.

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The madness of Kyle Busch is closely akin to the icy derangement which turns the wheels backwards in the odd, darkly comic movie Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kurbrick and slated for release on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.

In it, a mentally unstable US Air Force general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, convinced that the commies are poisoning “the precious bodily fluids” of good upstanding Americans through the introduction of fluoridation, which was back then being added to the water supply to promote dental health. The crack-pot theory comes to him, in full bloom, after having sex; somehow he makes the connection between his post-coital fatigue and the fluoridation in the water he drinks. The commie plot of fluoridation is to blame for his failing to launch any subsequent salvoes of sperm, so he decides to do what testosterone, the Ayatollah of Hormonal Assahollah, is whispering in his ears: Launch First.

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Sterling Hayden as U.S. Air Force general Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Ripper orders the nuclear-armed B52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing (stationed in Alaska) past their fail-safe points –- where they normally hold awaiting possible orders to proceed -– and into Soviet airspace. Although a nuclear attack should require Presidential authority to be initiated, Ripper uses “Plan R”, an emergency war plan which enables a senior officer to launch a retaliation strike against the Soviets if everyone in the normal chain of command, including the President, has been killed during a sneak attack. Aware that the U.S. military will be mobilized against him to try and stop the sneak attack, Ripper tells his troops not to be fooled by Soviet troops posturing as GIs and to fire upon anyone approaching the base.

Back in Washington, the War Room tries to manage the mess. One general (George C. Scott) tries to convince President Merkin Muffley president (Peter Sellers, playing one of three roles in the movie) that this presents an excellent opportunity to take out the Russkies, noting that the U.S. strike would take out about 90 percent of Soviet missile capacity and that a retaliatory nuclear attack would have “acceptable” results, killing “10 to 20 million, tops, depending on the breaks.”

But the President rebukes the general and insists on calling Soviet premier Dmitri Kissoff and give him the information necessary to shoot down the U.S. bombers. Kissoff, who is drunk, informs Muffley that any attempted nuclear strike on Russia would automatically fire up the Doomsday Device, a network of computers which launch “cobalt Thorium G” missiles at targets around the world, destroying all life on Earth. The process is irreversible once the sequence is launched.

Just one of the U.S. bombers fails to get shot down before reaching its targets; damaged from anti-aircraft fire, its radio beyond repair and unable to reach its first and second primary targets, aircraft commander Major T.J. “King” Kong (played by Slim Pickins, although John Wayne was the original choice) decides to deliver its payload to the nearest undefended Soviet target.

But as the B52 goes on its bombing run, it’s discovered that the bomb bay doors are damaged and will not open. Despite the best American technology and a singular conflagration of luck, failure to launch becomes the ultimate crisis of this deranged movie. Major Kong goes down to the bomb bay to force the doors open himself, straddling a nuclear bomb as he tries to fix sparking wires overhead. As the B-52 reaches its target the doors spring open, triggering the bomb to fall without further warning. Kong rides the bomb to the ground like a rodeo cowboy, whooping, hollering and waving his cowboy hat.

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Slim Pickins as Maj. T.J. “King” Kong, yee-hawing a nuclear bomb like a bull to its Russian target.

Back in Washington, President Muffley is informed by Dmitri Kissoff that following that single attack, the Doomsday Device has been ignited and that life on Earth will cease to exist in ten months.

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Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, one of three roles he plays in the film.

That’s when Dr. Strangelove is called in (also played by Sellers), or rather wheeled in, since the mad scientist is wheelchair bound and suffers from “alien hand syndrome,” where one of his gloved hands autonomically bolts up to his neck, attempting to strangle him, or bolts out into a Nazi salute. Strangelove informs the council that a contingent of survivors should colonize deep within mine shafts, out of reach of nuclear fallout, with ten women for every man (including, of course, all of the Council and Dr. Strangelove himself.) Visibly excited, Dr. Strangelove leaps from his wheelchair shouting “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” (proving he is fit to join to contingent headed for the mines).  as footage of nuclear bombs conclude the movie, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s WWII torch song, “We Will Meet Again.”

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I imagine Kyle Busch as Slim Pickins down in the damaged bomb bay of the sole American B-52 to cut through the Soviet net and speed on toward its verboten target, where the difference between launching that nuclear bomb and failing to is the difference between first and second place in a NASCAR race. That’s Kyle kicking open the door himself and climbing up onto that singular engine of mass destruction, straddling it as the bomb looses and begins is ride toward the finish line. Kyle Busch will win races, but his zeal for winning is his doom and will ever fail to launch a winning championship run in the premier series because he isn’t smart enough to learn how second place may be the smartest way to survive a race.

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Events in the real world, with the Kennedy assassination occurring on the same day the first test screening was planned, almost caused a failure to launch for Dr. Strangelove. The producers had to settle for a release in late January 1964, when they hoped the mood in the country had sufficiently settled down. Many believed that Kennedy had been killed by communists, and there was gossip that Dr. Strangelove was open propaganda for the commies, putting the American military in such a darkly comic light.

Ironically, Sterling Hayden was part of a group called Hollywood Fights Back who went to Washington to fight the blacklisting of producers and directors by McCarthyism. The threat of nuclear winter was reaching its zenith back then, with people around the country building backyard bomb shelters (the gay guys who live behind us moved into a house that had one, building their deck out over the top of it where they have cocktails at night with gabby older women). I remember doing that idiotic “duck and cover” drill in my first grade class at Dewey Elementary in Evanston, just north of Chicago, diving with my fellow classmates for the safety under our tiny wood desks while ICBMs packing hydrogen bomb warheads wriggled into view like spermatozoa in the high sky and then slammed into the Sears Tower and Wrigley Field.

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“Duck and cover” was a euphemism for “fall down and kiss your ass goodbye,” though we foolishly believed back then that it was akin to buckling up a seat belt. It was soon after the Cuban Missile crisis and the hydrogen bomb was still new, packing ten times the firepower of the atomic bombs used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

Still, the Cold War was in most glacial period. Fear of the wrong person pushing the wrong button ran an icy fissure deep into the culture. Kubrick jammed that fear down like a panic button for comic effect, discovering that that the only solution to final solutions is surrender to laughter.

Most audiences caught it, but the echoes of laughter in the cinemas were haunting. And things were just starting up in Vietnam, a conventional war which bred a different specie of nightmare.

Whattayagonnado? Kubrick’s first answer was to launch all those bombs—or allow our worser natures to punch the red button. By decade’s end he was using whaddayagonndo? to launch us into he deepest folds of known and unknown space.

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There’s a parallel between NASCAR of the 1980s and the world of Dr. Strangelove. Cars were going faster and faster with some horrific consequences.

Davey Allison, who died sixteen years ago in a helicopter wreck outside Talladega, was a victim of that age. Allison’s ascending star was as fast as his car. The defining moment came in one of the first races in Allison’s rookie Winston Cup season, at Talladega in 1987. Bill Elliott had qualified at 212.809 mph, a record which stands to this day. The race was that fast. Early on Davey watched his father Bobby cut a tire, go airborne, and crash vertically in spectacular fashion, collecting many other cars in the crash and spraying debris into the stands. Davey won the race after Elliott blew and engine and darkness fell on the track. He would win again at Dover -– his two wins becoming a record at that time for a rookie -– and ended up scoring nine top-five and 10 top-ten finishes and winning five poles.

NASCAR was trying back then to temper its wildness, but a Doomsday Machine had been sprung by its speeds. In the next season, father Bobby and son Davey finished 1-2 in the first restrictor-plate race Daytona 500, implemented after Bobby Allison’s wreck at Talladega. Bobby was almost killed in a wreck at Pocono later that year, ending his racing career; Davey raced on, winning at Michigan and Richmond. Davey sped to victory, but triumph at such killing speeds doused his marriage, with he and wife Deborah divorcing after the season was over.

Allison had 2 wins in the ’89 season and married his second wife, Liz. Their first child, Krista, was born prior to the 1990 season. He had 2 more wins in 1990 and 5 wins in ’91 and ’92. Davey Allison was a popular driver, definitely a guy the fans could identify with. He was also the sacrificial lamb in NASCAR’s most troubled age of speed.

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In 1992, Allison raced at “One Hot Night,” as it was billed by The Nashville Network who broadcast the event–the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. It was the first superspeedway race under the lights. Racing at night at such speeds was a new phenomenon, and Davey Allison dominated the race until the final laps. Dale Earnhardt was leading, followed by Kyle Petty and Allison. In the third turn on the final lap, Petty nudged Earnhardt’s car and the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet spun. Davey took advantage of the contact and jumped into the lead. But Petty charged back and as Davey crossed the start-finish line to win the race, the two cars came together, sending the driver’s side of Davey’s car hard into the outside wall in a shower of sparks.

An unconscious Allison was taken from his car and airlifted to a Charlotte hospital. The crash left him with a concussion and bruised lung and everything else battered up good. His car was destroyed.

Allison would later say to have sustained an out-of-body experience after the crash. He claimed to have awakened to see his crashed car below him as he rose away from it, and to have turned his attention away from the frantic work of the emergency workers to a bright light above, which faded and left him in darkness until he awoke later in the hospital.

Larry McReynolds stated during the FOX telecasts that the first words from Allison when he awoke in the hospital were, “Did we win”? “Yes Davey, we won,” McReynolds told him.

Davey recovered, got back in his car and resumed racing. He won the pole at Pocono—where his father had so nearly fatally wrecked five years before) and led 115 of the first 149 laps. But a lengthy pit stop during a caution flag sent him to the middle of the pack. On lap 150, Allison was charging back through the pack, followed closely by Darrell Waltrip. The two cars made contact and Davey slid into the grass off Pocono’s “tunnel turn.” went airborne and began a series of violent flips before landing on top of an infield guardrail. Somehow, miraculously, Davey survived the crash. He was airlifted to the hospital with a severe concussion, along with a broken arm, wrist and collarbone.

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Davey Allison’s crash at Pocono.

Davey arrived at Talladega the following week wearing dark shades to hide eyes severely bruised from the Pocono crash. His arm was in a cast that allowed him to drive, as well as velcro attachments to his glove and the car’s shifter knob helped him drive with less exertion. Still, Bobby Hillin, Jr. had to relieve Davey after the initial laps of the DieHard 500.

With his body healed enough to allow him to drive an entire race, Davey headed to Michigan where he had dominated the track’s earlier event. But tragedy struck the Allison clan again. While practicing for the weekend’s Busch Series race, Davey’s younger brother, Clifford Allison, crashed hard in the third and fourth turns at Michigan. He died en route to the hospital.

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Clifford Allison, Davey’s younger brother, killed in a crash at Michigan during practice for a Busch Series race in 1993, leaving behind his wife and three kids.

Davey continued to race–what drives a man so that he would continue so dangerous a sport, one which had nearly killed his father and did kill his brother? A soldier at war? Someone who’d come to stop hating the Bomb? A man too in love with the music of the great Oval? Too wild for hard launch into banked turns at the speed of flight …

Allison battled owner/driver Adam Kulwicki for the Winston Cup championship right down to the last race of the season, the Hooters 500. (Now there’s a race sponsor.) Davey just had to manage a fifth-place finish to win the title. A first lap incident cause minor damage to Allison’s car, and he fought the rest of the race to get into and stay in the top ten. Late in the race, Davey had finally managed to reach the top five and was in position to win the championship when Ernie Irvan lost control of his car on the frontstretch on lap 286. Davey couldn’t avoid Irvan’s spinning car and plowed into the #4 Kodak Chevrolet.

Allison’s season was over, his championship hopes lost as Elliott and Kulwicki finished first and second in the race respectively. Kulwicki won the championship by leading one more lap than Elliott (103 to 102). Davey was noted for his gracious concession of defeat after emerging from a medical evaluation, and his refusal to blame or criticize Irvan.

Imagine Kyle Busch being so publically gracious, losing by so historically minute a margin …

That race was also distinguished by the ending and beginning of two racing dynasties: it was Richard Petty’s final NASCAR race and Jeff Gordon’s first. Our contemporary NASCAR world launched from that race–or was it by what so tragically happened soon after?

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Series champion Alan Kulwicki died in an airplane crash early in the next season. Four months later Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash headed for the Talladega race. Those cars were flying so fast they could have left the ground –- and they frequently did, in the horrific crashes that often ensued –- yet it was higher up in the atmosphere of flight that NASCAR’s best crashed and burned in 1993. Up there in the dream of eternal expansion, headed towards the stars.

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Davey Allison’s grave marker

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Let us remember that Daytona, Florida’s cathedral of speed, has always been paired with Cape Canaveral, a few miles to the south. We have been hurling rockets into space about as long as cars have been roaring around the Daytona superspeedway, hurling phallic monsters not at each other’s civilian populations but toward the great looming face of the moon and beyond.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a fantastical dream of such flight, futuristic in its imagery beyond all reckoning of the day. Whaddayagonnado? is an arc drawn between the first hominid to triumphantly hurl a bone bloodied with a murdered rival up into the air, morphing seamlessly a satellite orbiting the earth millions of years in the future. (Three other vehicles follow the satellite in the first scene in space and are generally thought to be nuclear weapons.)

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But the movie’s lyric trope on aggression is more fundamental than that. Soon after there’s a shot of a Pan Am space plane in a docking procedure with the whirling twin wheels of Space Station 5, tiny and large vehicle in spinning tandem to the accompaniment of the Strauss waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” A mating dance, in perfect technological coordination, consummated when the small vehicle inserts into an dark open bay in the loin of the station.

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Nightmare and dream paired in the same vision, the same calling, for reasons which, according to Kubrick in the latter movie, were never wholly our own. Blame it on God, or the Obelisk which they exhume on the moon which is identical to the one which seemed to instruct the hominid in the use of a bone for slaughter, or evolution’s battle-cry: we were born to best all comers and win the jewel, be it cave-mate or the moons of Jupiter.

Born to win, destined to lose: the spoils of victory ruin something in our nature, or amp a greed which outmans us. First place has a gravity to it, or gravitas, a Counterforce which more often than not resists our efforts to win and dumps us back in the grave of second place.

When are we freed for to adventure beyond the bourne from which, according to Hamlet, no man returns? When Davey died after the helicopter wreck, did he lift up over Talladega to join in the angelic dance over all the phallic sky-blasts of exploding hydrogen bombs at the end of Dr. Strangelove, at one at last with NASCAR’s turn toward annihilation? Or did he spiral up to God like that Pan Am space shuttle headed for the whirling matrix beyond our beyonds?

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At the end of the Prayer of St. Francis, ‘tis said that “it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.” Surrender, perhaps, is the only escape from the endless machinations of whattayagonnado. Ask Davey.

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Most of NASCAR’s speed records were set in the 1990’s, with a good number of its fatalities, too. Neil Bonnettt, Rodney Orr and Kenny Irwin died in Winston Cup series crashes. After Earnhardt’s death in 2000, and the development of the generic car, no driver has died in Sprint Cup practice or competition since. The powers backed off on the speed pedal and made tracks more crash-proof. There have been some spectacular wrecks – like Michael McDonalds ass-over-teaketttle crash during practice at Texas Motor Speedway last year, and Carl Edwards’ finish-line airborne event at Talladega this year—but the drivers always emerge, thanks to the safety of their vehicles. Nationwide Series cars will soon meet generic car specifications.

The biggest rockets have already been fired too. Saturn V was a multistage liquid-fuel expendable rocket used by NASA’s Apollo and Skylab programs from 1967 until 1973. The three-stage, five-engine rocket system was so tall that it cleared the Vehicle Assembly Building at Canaveral by a mere six feet and delivered from its launch pad some 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

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A Saturn V rocket lifts off with one of the Apollo missions.

My father-in-law was over yesterday, helping me to put some molding up on the steps going up to our second-floor bedroom while huge storms raked the area. He told me about working for Consolidated Electrodynamic Corporation in the early 1960s, a scientific instrumentation company which had gotten its start developing calibration equipment to measure bomb-blast performance in deep-well oil explorations. Over the years CEC got into all kinds of equipment and became intimately involved with the fledgling space program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama. CEC had highest-tech recording instruments of the day and were used to measure the new Saturn V rocket’s performance in testing. As we glued down a strip of molding he recalled watching the first test of the Saturn V, tethered fast to a docking station. The wallop of power from the test firing of the engines surprised all who were present with their wallop, knocking from their chairs engineers and vendors like himself and a few Congressmen.

When Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969-—40 years ago this week-—NASA built a special glass broadcast booth for Walter Cronkite, then the voice of the American space program. Millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the live broadcast of the event, and more than 750,000 people thronged the highways and beaches around the launch site. My father-in-law was there, too. He says that when the Saturn V rocket fired, launching Apollo 11, the shockwave shook Cronkite’s tower so forcefully that Cronkite was terrified.

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Walter Cronkite died last week, one day after launch of the shuttle Endeavour and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. Cronkite has no equal these days among the network anchors and cheesecake stylists who serve as anchors on the cable news stations; no one has the mix of authority and humility which made him such a warm presence for delivering news into our living rooms that was frequently bad, or frightening, or alien, or just plain strange.

My father-in-law was a leading-edge authority on the technology of that day, though now he’s wholly befuddled by iMac nad the computer engineering of his Beemer. His memory on many things since his stroke is not good, but for some reason he has almost perfect recall of the events of 40 years ago in the space program.

I suppose whatever I know now will resemble a bloody bone ax in my last years. Good for describing prehistory, worthless for surviving the next day.

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By comparison, the rocket assembly which got the space shuttle Endeavour finally off the ground last week after five previous attempts packed a meager 1.25 million pounds of thrust. Perhaps because the shuttle works closer to the Earth that it doesn’t need the massive payload, but NASA has certainly downsized, with the shuttle program ending next year and funding issues questioning the entire enterprise. People aren’t so interested in the space program, either; tens of thousands may come out to the beach to watch a launch, but attention drifts so quickly away from any news event that the shuttle now flies in a void. We’re looking other directions, or perhaps in too many directions at once.

Things have backed off, too, from the threat of nuclear winter which I grew up with. I remember going off to college in 1974 certain that there would be no 1980 for the human race, not with the vast inventories of ICBMs siloed in Russia and the United States. Yet somehow be backed down from that precipice, the two countries engaging in proliferation talks, working hard to prevent the spread of nuclear technology to other states.

If only it were enough. Everyone’s sweating the real possibility of Iran developing nuclear warheads, or North Korea developing an ICBM that can reach San Francisco. Warheads can be packed in shipping containers and hidden among the tens of thousands being freighted into our harbors. The bombs haven’t gone enough away. Fear and distrust and an ancient animosities still keep trigger fingers itchy.

All it takes is a rogue like Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove to start the sequence. The bombs are there in the missiles and the red button glows morning and night, begging for the touch of a finger. And as we learned from September 11, box-cutters are just as effective a weapon as an ICBM for destroying the tallest towers in the world. The fate of New York or Los Angeles could be in a simple suitcase traveling by boat to one of those city’s harbors. An atom blast starts with an atom. It takes just an infinitesimal of well-placed malice to level a civilization.

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It would take seven more years of racin’ and a fatal on-track crash before NASCAR woke sufficiently from its dream of speed to inaugurate the task of making its cars safe. Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s crash on the last lap of the 2000 Daytona 500—where the Intimidator met, at last, the Eliminator—-got the work started. Cars became safer—-not crash-proof, but kill-proof—-and the playing field leveled into a sameness which has made winning a matter of weather and pit strategy. NASCAR innovated in the direction of safety, and that is good, but these innovations have killed too much of the essential danger.

I can’t help but wonder if the ground has been laid for some future racin’ equivalent of extreme fighting, where the boxing gloves and rules have been stripped for something rawer and bloodier, a more naked violence which has become wildly popular. Perhaps some league of young daredevils will form who take their street machines and go at it in some Thunderdome beyond the last municipal boundary, racin’ without Hans head safety devices or any other measure which softens or blunts racing’s edge.

Like bullets those cars would hurl round the track and each other, without sponsorship or insurance, just young men (and maybe a few crazy women with too much testosterone spilled into their hormonal siloes), full metal jackets going bang bang bang til there’s only one car going round and round and round. A bit of the ultraviolence, as the goon Malcolm McDowell proclaimed in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, sexy and hip and deadly. Perhaps all of what’s missing in racin’ today.

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That vision, in fact, was dreamt in the 1970’s cult movie Death Race 2000, where the United States has been destroyed by a financial crisis (yikes!!) which was followed by a military coup. Political parties have collapsed into a single Bipartisan Party, which also fulfills the religious functions of a unified church and state (double yikes!!).

The resulting fascist police state, the United Provinces, is headed by the cult figure “Mr. President” (Sandy McCallum, who could easily morph into Sarah Palin). The people are kept satisfied through a stream of gory gladiatorial entertainments which include the bloody spectacle the Transcontinental Road Race, depicted as a symbol of American values and way of life. The coast-to-coast, 3-day race is run on public roads, and points are scored not just for speed, but for the number of innocent pedestrians struck and killed.

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Frankenstein (David Carradine) in Roger Corman’s 1975 “Death Race 2000,” remade in 2008 as “Death Race.”

Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the most celebrated racer and is the government’s champion. He is reputed to be part machine, rebuilt after many crashes. He regularly battles with the other teams, particularly “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), who hates being second.

Is Jimmie Johnson NASCAR’s Frankenstein, its finest machine, and Kyle Busch its MacJoe Viterbo, always gunning for first place, taking no prisoners, accepting no other fate than Victory Lane? In Death Race 2000, Frankenstein wins, kills the President and makes himself leader of the U.S., abolishes the race and marries a girl who is part of a resistance movement modeled upon the patriots who fought the original Revolution.

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Machine Gun Joe/Busch and Frankenstein/Johnson.

Who ever wins in such races, except bloodthirsty audiences?

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David Carradine was found dead in Bangkok last June. It was apparently thought he died of suicide, but his lawyer asserts that Carradine was murdered by secret kung-fu assasins, as Carradine was then investigating groups working with the martial-arts underworld. As the Intimidator traded paint with the Eliminator, so Grasshopper finally met his Mantis.

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High summer is the season of the big bad voltage witch here in Central Florida. Especially this year, with a high pressure dome out on the Atlantic keeping a low over the peninsula that sucks in stormy weather like an OBT hooker in need of a whole lot of crank.

Lots of big storms march through in the afternoon, 40-thousand foot cumuli which frequently deliver from their bows fierce batteries of lightning. And the voltage witch is tethered there, a fish-tailed whiskey jezebel of a figurehead, smiling with bulging blue eyes, ready, oh so ready, to deliver the next jissom of molten light.

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Consider:

– Nearly 2,000 thunderstorm cells are estimated over the planet at any given time. The U.S. has over 100,000 thunderstorms annually, the global average being 16 million.

– A bolt of lightning is about one inch in diameter, but is about 50,000 degrees farenheit—hotter than the surface of the sun.

– For each lightning bolt that hits the ground, about 200,000 pounds of rain are also formed.

– Lightning bolts really can come out of nowhere, jumping 10 or more miles from their parent cloud into regions with blue skies.

– Lightning over 100 miles long has been observed.

– An average of 58 people in the U.S. are killed by lightning strikes each year. They kill more people than hurricanes or tornadoes.

– Lightning is not limited to a one-bolt action. Many lightning flashes are of a multiple variety and may strike repeatedly in a few seconds. Up to 22 consecutive lightning strokes have been observed in a multiple flash.

– Thunder is generated from every part of the lightning bolt, though the sound may not reach your ears at the same time. This can cause the extended rumbling. Also, mountains, tall buildings and cliffs may reflect or intensify the original thunder producing an extended rumbling thunder sound.

– Ball lightning can sometimes float through a glass window without breaking it.

– Last year, about 1.2 million lightning strikes hit Florida.

– “Lightning Alley”—-where more lightning strikes occur every year than anywhere else in the world—-cuts a swath through Central Florida from Tampa To Titusville. (The central California coast sees the least amount of lightning.)

– Florida’s lightning frequently packs a stronger charge than average —- more than 45,000 amperes. Some researchers believe that Florida lightning is particularly powerful because of the tall, more highly charged storm-cloud formations. Lightning is the state’s leading cause of weather-related death, and the state has the distinction of having the nation’s worst record of deaths by lightning.

– Most people killed are not struck directly by lightning. The bolt usually hits something else first.

– Lightning generally strikes the tallest thing in the immediate area.

– The body doesn’t conduct or convey a charge. People who survive strikes can suffer burns, headaches, hearing problems, irritability, joint pains, short-term memory loss, neurological damage and sleeping problems.

– A Central Florida storm on June 18 of this year walloped the area with 5,000 lightning strikes an hour.

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That all said, then consider this:

– A Sprint Cup car like Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota delivers about 864 horsepower without a restrictor plate, which reduces the engine power to about 445 horses.

– During the National Anthem prior to the Coke Zero 400, four Boeing F-15 Eagles buzzed Daytona International Speedway, roaring exponentially louder than the combined Sprint Cup field when they started their engines. They have a thrust with afterburner of 25,000 pounds of force (lbf).

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F-15.

– The Space Shuttle gets into orbit with the assistance of a expendable tank and two partially-reusable solid fuel booster rockets, and itself has three engines. It lifts off with a total thrust of 1,225,704 pounds of force, with an inclination to match the international space station, which orbits at an inclination of 51 degrees.

Compared to Nature, our strength is small: like swimmers, as Rilke once said. Though we keep trying, hands itchy at the wheel of whaddayagonnado?

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Space shuttle missions have strict weather criteria for launch, including precipitation (none allowed at the launch pad or flight path), no temperatures above 99 degrees or below 35 degrees, no more than 20% or greater chance of lightning within 5 nautical miles and cloud cover allows direct visual observation of the shuttle through 8,000 feet. The shuttle will not be launched under conditions where it could be struck by lightning. Like most jet airliners, the shuttle is mainly constructed of conductive aluminum, which would normally shield and protect the internal systems; however, upon takeoff the shuttle sends out a long exhaust plume as it ascends, and this plume can trigger lightning by providing a current path to ground. The NASA Anvil Rule for a shuttle launch states that an anvil cloud cannot appear within a distance of 10 nautical miles.

Failure to launch is sometimes a mechanical issue in the space shuttle issue –- fuel leaks scrubbed the first two attempts to launch Endeavour -– but more frequently it is the weather witch.

Last Monday’s launch was scrubbed when there were eleven lightning strikes within one third of a mile of launch pad 39A during severe thunderstorms. Endeavour itself was not touched, but seven of the strikes hit the pad’s lightning protection system, comprised of a mast and wires that direct an electrical strike to the ground. (Two of those seven caused an electrical surge and generated a magnetic field powerful enough to concern engineers and trigger a review of the shuttle’s electrical system

On Tuesday, storms building around Kennedy Space Center late in the afternoon led NASA to scrub the launch just 10 minutes before the scheduled 6:51 p.m. liftoff.

Finally on Wednesday, liftoff was achieved a little after 6 p.m. Storms were massing to the north and south, but the belt around the Cape was clear and the shuttle got off. I watched it from the monitors at the gym, and the launch is always spectacular –0 that huge phallic orange fuel tank pouring a river of fire out its base, carrying the shuttle up into the sky in an burning arc that can be seen all the way into Orlando (a co-worker who was trying to drive home on I-4 right then said there was a half dozen accents at once, caused by people craning their necks to the eastern horizon to catch a glimpse.

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Endeavour’s liftoff on July 15 came on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing mission. It also carried the 500th human into space, Mission Specialist Christopher Cassidy.

“Persistence pays off,” launch director Pete Nickolento told the astronauts, who are embarking on one of the busiest missions ever, with five spacewalks planned.

The launch was not without its fatefulness. Soon after liftoff, eight or nine pieces of foam came off the external fuel tank, and Endeavour was hit at least two or three times where the right wing joins the fuselage. So far, space center engineers believe the damage to the heat tiles to be minor. But everyone’s jittery, because the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in 2003 because of a hole in its wing, left there by flyaway foam at liftoff.

And Mother Nature, in her guise as storm goddess, behaved like she had been fooled on July 15 by the NASA’s persistent refusal to fail at the launch. Driving back from the gym that night I saw a storm system to the south that was so huge it stretched across the entire sky. We missed any of its effects in my small town, but the storm cut a brutal swath down the I-4 corridor from Deltona to Kissimmee, dumping up to 4 inches of rain and hail, tearing the roof off a south Orange county warehouse, flooding roads and sparking at least one fire with lightning. 16 families were homeless after a presumed lightning strike hit Hidden Pond apartments on Lee Road in Winter Park. Orange County Fire Rescue responded to more than 117 calls for service from 7 to 10 p.m. that included car accidents, medical emergencies and fires.

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A high pressure dome in the Atlantic is keeping the state safe from hurricanes right now, but the downside is that the storm witch has been more active in Florida this July than ever as a low pressure circulates around the state.

On July 10, lighting strikes killed a vacationing Oklahoma man and hurt his wife and son in Melbourne Beach Frank Paxton of Ripley, Okla., who was in his mid-50s, was hit by lightning while walking on the beach near Ocean Avenue about 3:30 p.m., Brevard County fire and sheriff’s officials said. His wife and their young-adult son also were shocked but were in good condition at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne.

On the same day, a lightning strike in Clermont in Lake County occurred about 2 p.m. at a drop-off site for waste and recyclables on Log House Road. The bolt or bolts struck two men, said Sharon Tatum of the county Department of Environmental Utilities. Both were hurt, but one —- who had been standing in the bed of a pickup dropping off debris —- was in worse condition, according to Lake County assistant fire Chief Jack Fillman.

On July 4, a Lakeland man was killed while playing soccer at a church gathering in western Polk County. Twenty-seven others were injured.

And so we go about our daily business in the torrid swamp which is our summer, keeping a wary eye on the sky as the afternoon foments and goes gray.

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On Saturday night, Kyle Busch won the Missouri-Dodge Dealers 250 Nationwide Race at Gateway Speedway in Illinois, taking the lead in the final laps after Kevin Harvick ran out of gas, followed by Reed Sorenson and Carl Edwards. It as Kyle’s sixth Nationwide win this year and his seventh first- or second-place finish in the past seven races.

Pretty impressive, though we know that to Kyle only the first-place finishes count. Not even the Nationwide Series championship means as much to Kyle Busch as winning the next race.

For Kyle Busch, he must be in the one car to cross beneath the checkered flag first. Nature takes no such chances in such singular success. The approximate amount of semen in a typical male ejaculation is about one teaspoonful, but it’s packed with between 200 and 500 million spermatozoa. Any one of them is champ enough to fertilize an egg cell.

For Kyle Busch, whattayagonnado? means keeping pedal jammed to metal; for Nature – and her more successful children — it’s means jamming the conduit with every possibility for someone, something, some cell to be victorious. Singularity may be Kyle Busch’s game, but it does not belong to Mother Nature. Any racer with the right car and the lucky breaks on any night will do.

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Fuel strategy has been the bane of larger missions than NASCAR races. Sunday, July 19, marked the 40th anniversary of the first two humans to land on the moon. People may not recall of the difficulty Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had in the final moments of getting there, with the auto-pilot seemingly malfunctioning and the lunar module running out of fuel. There was about 20 seconds of descent fuel left when they finally touched down.

Neil Armstrong was the first to step out of the module onto the surface of the moon, saying those words which so ensoul the dream of all technology: “One small step for man … one giant step for mankind.” Walter Cronkite at that moment was speechless and an estimated 600 million viewers were enrapt. Aldrin soon followed, deploying a second television camera and raising an American flag. A plaque is then unveiled with the inscription: “Here men from the planet Earth first set food upon the moon July, 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Back on earth, American bombers were carpet-bombing Cambodia in “Operation Breakfast,” the first of five covert bombing missions authorized by President Nixon against communist supply routes without the knowledge of Congress or the U.S public. At the same time, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was describing a policy of “Vietnamization”, shifting the burden of defeating the Communists onto the South Vietnamese Army and away from the United States. And news was just breaking of the March 1968 massacre of between 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in the village of My Lai in South Vietnam. The majority were women, children, and elderly people; many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.

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Trouble from on high and down low in Vietnam, losing a war with military superiority.

Back in our present, space shuttle Endeavour has docked at the international space station and plans a week-and-a-half-long stay. Before docking, commander Mark Polansky guided Endeavour through a backflip so the station astronauts could photograph the entire shuttle, primarily its belly. The station crew used zoom lenses to capture any evidence of serious damage from last Wednesday’s launch. A considerable amount of foam insulation peeled away from Endeavour’s fuel tank at liftoff and some shuttle thermal tiles were dinged.

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Endeavour docks.

And back on the earth of our present, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Gates said that after eight years of war, U.S.-led forces must show progress in Afghanistan by the summer of 2010 to avoid that the conviction that the conflict is unwinnable. Since 2001, 742 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and 4,327 in the Iraq conflict. The count of deaths by native Iraqis and Afghanis is around 750,000, according to the lowest credible estimates.

What is our victory, and how to measure their defeat? How much did we lose in trying so hard to win?

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The Shuttle program will end in 2010. The original plans were to develop a new spacecraft for a planned return to the moon, but NASA faces intense funding questions. Scientists debate whether humans need to go on those missions. But without a live body in the cockpit, interest wanes here on earth.

500 humans have been launched into space, but only 12 have walked on the moon. On the moon there are no storms, no lightning. There is no NASCAR or Dr. Strangelove. Whether the moon was torn from the Pacific Ocean or accreted into the earth’s orbit from elsewhere, it hangs in the night sky, waxing and waning each month, throwing over the earth its strange cold lucence –- reflecting back the sun’s reflection off the earth. Part of our house of mirrors.

The youngest surviving astronaut to walk the moon in his 70s now. Its very likely that all of them will die out before the next human steps onto the moon.

Most Americans were born after the first moon walk in July 1969. Memory of the event is textbook—beyond their recall. Who knows if we’ll ever see it happen again.

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Kyle Busch has said his goal was to tie Richard Petty’s NASCAR record by winning a total 200 races – in any series, any race he can enter. He is a very busy racer, sometimes competing in all three races in a weekend. He had competed in 34 of a possible 38 races so far this year, including, the Grand Am road race before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on July 4, sharing a seat with Scott Speed. Off the main series competition he’s entered 10 pavement super-late-model races, one dirt-track super-late-model race and a Camping World series East-West race.

Perhaps lightning—-or its Witch–which (or who) is to blame for Kyle Bush’s strangely failed Sprint Cup season. The boy seems destined to win, oozes talent, drives like there’s no tomorrow. But then lightning always seems to strike. And it comes from a tangled front somewhere between his brainpan and the seat of his pants, a jagged and confused matrix which will defeat Kyle Busch until he makes peace with his whaddayagonnado.

And it’s not like he can do that by beating it, and winning is all that Kyle Busch understands.

So whaddayagonna do?

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