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Life Lessons

It’s Continually Alarming That Choices Matter

11:06 AM EDT on June 26, 2023

ZAGREB, CROATIA - MARCH 20: A sign in tribute to Craig Breen of Ireland and Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team who succumbed to injuries sustained in a testing crash last week during Day One of the FIA World Rally Championship Croatia on March 20, 2023 in Zagreb, Croatia. (Photo by Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images)
Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images

Craig Breen died April 13. He was a rally driver and he died in the testing for a race in Croatia. He was an impossibly charming guy and also a talented one and now he is not alive any more. These sentences are inadequate to the reality of his, or anyone’s, death, but so is language.

Craig Breen’s death is an accident and a tragedy and it was also the result of a series of choices and decisions by a whole series of people. Driver, co-driver, car designer, rally rules decider, road builder, fence builder—the list goes on as long as you want it to. There are people out there who could write intelligently about who made what choices and whether those choices were right or wrong; I’m not one of them. Fault is one of the ways we have to talk about this sort of disaster, but it is one I am neither qualified to use nor interested in using in this case. The problem is that none of the other ways I talk about stuff really work either. A terrible thing happened as a result of human choices; I don’t know if there is a good way to talk about that.

I had been planning on watching the Croatia Rally. I did not wind up watching it. I didn’t watch the rallies that followed it either. My personal belief is that when anybody dies, the entire world should stop in mourning. This is a totally impractical position to hold. People are dying every second. It wasn’t so much the racing itself as the sense of the world going onwards without Craig Breen in it, the Instagram-tribute black-and-white pictures of Breen switching to pictures of breakfasts eaten and race stages won. It was also a deeply hypocritical position for me to hold: I might not have been watching the race, but I was eating and enjoying breakfast, I was taking a walk after dinner, I was surfing the internet. 

It’s not even as if I was honoring the dead by not watching the race. A lot of the people who knew him said that Craig Breen would want the race to go on. This is often just a knee-jerk banality that people say on these occasions, but it is almost certainly accurate in this case. It might be sufficient evidence that Craig Breen was a rally driver, i.e. both professionally and personally dedicated to whipping a car as fast as possible around impossibly tight corners, but it’s also true that Craig Breen had been in a crash almost a decade before in which his co-driver, Gareth Roberts, had been killed. That was, everyone said, a freak accident. Breen continued racing. Roberts’s father said at the time that Roberts would have wanted Breen to keep racing. That was also almost certainly accurate. 

Craig Breen was an Irish guy who spoke fluent Italian. He conducted interviews with courtesy and verve, and seemed, however shitty a race he was having, fundamentally delighted to be present and racing, a delight that forcibly transmitted itself to anyone watching. Because I am a jackass, I imagine a vast crackling ocean of anger underneath any particularly genial persona; if Craig Breen was in possession of such an ocean, he kept it well-hidden. In the 2022 Rally Kenya his teammate held him up on the road, and one of the commentators was losing his mind with the carelessness of it. Breen himself at stage end shrugged it off with kindness. These things happened, he said. He himself, he pointed out, had recently made a similar mistake.

This season he also occupied the generically lovable role of the scrappy underdog. He had had a rough last season and only had a shared seat this year, meaning that he would not race all of the World Rally Championship races and also that he would not have a shot at the overall title. The only WRC event he ran this season was Rally Sweden, in which he came second. He gave an interview toward the end of that race. I recommend watching it. If the protagonist in a sports biopic gave a similar interview not long before dying tragically, it would be impossible to buy; the movie would have to show the actual thing over the closing credits to make you believe that it wasn’t made up. “Only you know your true potential,” Breen says toward the end, visibly choked up. It is a cliché; it is also true, as most clichés are.

When I watched the interview in something close to real time, I was genuinely delighted to watch Breen come in second, but I was also cracking up because the events leading to that result were convoluted and also hilarious. Breen had been on pace to come in second in the race but his team had given him orders to fall behind his teammate Thierry Neuville for reasons of overall standings. Breen had dutifully taken a penalty to accomplish that, only Neuville screwed up his stage, catapulting Breen back into second. Then at the podium, Neuville began to walk confidently toward the second step and had to be steered to the third-place finisher’s spot. It seemed really funny at the time, and part of what made it funny was the contrast between the inspirational high of Breen’s interview and the low-grade instrumentalist maneuvering that had preceded it. I don’t know if it seems funny now. What I do know is that it matters to me that it was funny at the time, that it seems to me that however we talk about catastrophe needs to leave space for the mundane, the ignoble, the trivial.

I found out about Craig Breen’s death while checking Instagram in the drive-thru line for McDonald’s, and I burst into tears. One of the things about being part of a fandom, however casually—and I am by rally standards an incredibly casual fan—is knowing that around the world other people were also bursting into tears for precisely the same reason at more or less the same moment. I was in junior high school in Los Angeles when Magic Johnson announced his HIV diagnosis; I remember standing under the Los Angeles sun on a basketball court while our phys ed teacher told us that this was our generation’s equivalent of the JFK assassination. That didn’t really turn out to be true, partly because so many other terrible things happened later and partly because we’ve gotten to watch so many different incarnations of Magic, but there was something impressive about the assurance with which my teacher said it. He wasn’t entirely wrong either: For a moment the world bent itself around the force of the grief we felt for this particular man. 

Rally publications talked about Breen’s death as if it were a natural disaster. That is certainly one way to think about catastrophe, to erase the possibility of the events having happened otherwise. It is satisfying in that it erases the need to assign blame, which so often feels demeaning and grotesque. It also speaks a deeper truth, which is that we live in a world where terrible things happen for no particular reason. 

But the language of natural disaster flattens out the choices we make; it deprives us of the ability to say what actually happened. In writing about Breen I came across a heartbreaking interview in which he talks about Roberts, his late co-driver. It is both achingly personal and weirdly absent. The interviewer asks Breen how the accident affected his career, which is an incredibly interesting question that also seemed like kind of a fucked-up thing to ask, or, to put it another way, a thing that becomes normal to ask only when you have had to come to terms, over and over, with the fact that your sport is incredibly dangerous. 

Breen’s answer is both interesting and vague. Mostly what he talks about is the after effects of losing his best friend, how difficult it was to put himself back together. But he also says that the incident itself affected how he drove, and then he says, almost in passing, that he lost the bursts of speed he had when he was young. This invites a causal inference: Breen had lost an insouciance that was useful to him as a driver. But I couldn’t be sure because he never really spelled out the mechanism. 

In How To Build A Car, Adrian Newey writes about the aftermath of Ayrton Senna’s death and the roles of design decisions he did or didn’t have in it. It has kind of the opposite approach, largely because he’s obsessed with being precise about mechanisms. He wants to tell us about recreating the car steering completely and testing it. Also in that case there was a trial. The book is bracingly focused on causation and also, necessarily, on blame. Newey says, of his role as a car designer, “The first thing you ask yourself is: Do I want to be involved in something where somebody can be killed as a result of a decision I have made? If you answer yes to that one, the second is: Do I accept that one of the design team for which I am responsible may make a mistake in the design of the car and the result of that mistake is that somebody may be killed?”

But in some ways, that formulation brings us back to natural disaster. We so often think of catastrophic errors as something that can be solved—we will stop drinking, we will start taking psych meds, we will make checklists. We will shake our heads at other people’s carelessness and then say, of our own worst mistakes, that we were different people then. What Newey’s formulation says is that catastrophe is always lurking, that it can never be foreclosed, not by good will, not by clean living, not by intense effort. 

The fact that I am the kind of person haunted at the hotel breakfast buffet by the possibility of accidental nut contamination makes me either the best or the worst possible person to write about this. Newey explicitly confines his questions to a field whose central focus is pushing the limits of physical form as far as they can be pushed. And yet my adult life, even minus a diagnosed anxiety disorder, suggests to me that these questions actually hover upsettingly close to all human endeavor. COVID, climate change, the temptation to text while driving—these are universal examples. If we believe that the things we do matter at all, we have to believe that doing them poorly can cause harm. And, more terrifying still, that we can do them just fine and still do harm. I have my own list of things I have done that caused harm. I do not intend to detail them. Most of them, honestly, I did not feel anxious about at the time, because I thought I was making the right choices.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter how close you think catastrophe is. Life goes on until it doesn’t. At 2 a.m. we contemplate catastrophe and at 7 a.m. we eat breakfast. Some days we give an inspirational speech and some days we head toward the wrong step of the podium. I will watch rally again; I will certainly think of Craig Breen every time. In the interview where Breen remembers Gareth Roberts, he says of the accident, “It really did destroy me.” And still he seemed, always, impossibly alive. 

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