Thought some of you might enjoy this, especially you racers and military. I tought it was very interesting. Wasn't sure to post in the outhouse or racing section so i just flipped a coin. The last few paragraphs is especially true and i think we all take for granted sometimes. Thank you to all of our military service men/women out there.
The Final Purity
by dean adams
Thursday, August 12, 2010
"I acclimated to combat very quickly," Iraq War veteran and ex-racer Shane Clarke said without ego, standing in the paddock at Heartland Park last year. "Quicker than anyone in my unit. I believe that was, in part, because I raced."
What can possibly, truly, prepare a man for combat in wartime? Training, assuredly, dictated by those who have been there before will guide one through an experience possibly best summed up by John Steinbeck in East of Eden when he termed war and combat as "the final purity".
Clarke raced Superbike and Supersport; he started racing in the early 1990s and finished his career in 2003. He came from Kansas and was known in the paddock as a credible and sincere racer—fast—but competent and levelheaded. To other racers, he was known as a rider who would not take your footpeg off for seventh place, but was going to be right there at the end of the race and if you made a mistake he'd capitalize on it. If Shane wasn't fast enough for a factory ride then maybe that was the end result of his being sane, practical and again, levelheaded. At times those at the top of the sport are there in part because they have an intense self-interest or a need an outlet for their rivalry with essentially everyone else in the human race. Clarke was always friendly and helpful when he raced, and if there was one person who was never going to be able to summon up hatred for everyone in the paddock it was he.
Clarke was realistic about his racing and what he was willing to give for it.
"I saw three people, friends of mine, die in racing. So I was, very early on, very clear within myself as to what the realities of this sport are," Clarke explains. "It's a wonderful sport, motorcycle racing, but there is an element to it that you can't sometimes control and if it goes bad you can get injured or killed. I justified it in my head because I loved it and was pretty good at it."
Clarke left racing after the 1998 season. Several years after that he enlisted in the Marines and was shipped off to Iraq, doing two tours. His last stint in Iraq was with the Kansas Army National Guard Infantry where he was a Sergeant and Team Leader in the southern province of Al Basarah. Before that was a period in Tikrit, one of the bloodiest places in Iraq, and whatever happened there, Clarke doesn't want to discuss it.
Riders who make it to the top level in racing are adept at focusing. Clarke says that intense focus helped him in Iraq as well. "I felt almost the same when I pulled on my battle gear as I did when I snapped down the shield of my helmet on the grid. Something in your head changes, a gear is flipped. I was ready, and had a plan even if there wasn't a plan, when things went wrong."
Standing in the Topeka paddock, Clarke, home now for almost a year, said that he was just short of returning to feeling normal. "I am still very hyper-aware of my surroundings," Clarke said. "They call that "Battle Mind" and it's really hard to shut it off. But I am about there. Many of my buddies have had tough times with being home again," he says. "Some from what they experienced and others from, I think, going from being in a situation where you're living at a very intense level every day to coming home to their real life again.
Post-traumatic stress is a condition many combat vets, after dealing with non-stop threats for weeks or months, struggle with when they return home. The list of reasons war is insane is endless, but it's nothing short of bizarre that young men from seemingly normal lives go to a place where many times the only rule is kill or be killed. And then, after months or years of that brutal and grueling daily existence, they are expected to return back to their "real" lives, drive to work, buy shoes and watch "Wheel of Fortune". That so many do so without becoming inmates in a mental ward is testament to the ability of human beings to cope and endure.
For Clarke, the intensity of combat in Iraq was something that he'd experienced before.
"What helped me in Iraq was that I raced," Clarke says, "and I think it helped me when I came home too."
Even for the slowest rider in the slowest class, club level motorcycle racing is an experience rich with lessons. Faced with a laundry list of either minor or catastrophic problems that need to be fixed immediately, club racing teaches you to move forward quickly even when it seems impossible to do so.
"How racing helped me in combat, I think, was that I went there with the framework in place to acclimate quickly, to intently focus, make decisions, and change the plan on the fly," Clarke explains.
"In racing, you're doing an activity that maybe ninety-percent of the population is not going to try just because it seems so dangerous, on the surface. So I was already accustomed to dealing with high stress and very intense situations when I got there. Some situations in Iraq reminded me of racing, like when we all went flying down into turn one at Road America that time and Steve Rapp and Kocinski's Ducatis touched and Rapp's bike just went flying. I still remember looking up as it helicoptered over me and hit the ground. It was total chaos. I was still in full race mode, looking for avenues, and making choices based on my experience. All racers I think are like that."
"Racing is filled with insane situations," Clarke says. "And there's always that element where it can all go wrong in a second. That's somewhat what combat was like."
While in Iraq, Clarke told few of his comrades that he had once raced motorcycles professionally. "A few people found out, and some people remembered me. One of them said, 'You must be a adrenaline junkie, love death or danger'. I kind of laughed and said actually I hate danger, but I can accept it as the world we live in."
Clarke, one of the most easy-going racers ever to work in the US Superbike paddock, wasn't interested in being drawn into telling terrible stories from combat or the politics that brought him to Iraq.
"The first time someone starts shooting at you, you're not really concerned with why they're shooting at you," he explained with a slight grin. "Your training kicks in and you live by your decisions and your instincts. In some ways, again, a lot like racing. As a racer you have to be determined, stand on your courage and be very what we in Iraq called "situationaly aware". You need to react and make decisions or there's a chance that you won't come back. Again, sort of like racing. Sometimes in combat you have less than optimal equipment or you're in a bad place. What is going to get you through it is your decisions and your ability." Clarke then stood there, knowing he didn't need to again say, "Just like racing" again.
"If you go over and get into a situation and freak out or panic, it's going to just make it worse. I had already learned from racing to stay calm as possible and to think. You're going into turn one at Brainerd with 30 other guys, and if you panic, it's going to only make it worse. I found myself doing the same things in combat. Gathering as much information as I could, trying to relax and make decisions.
A man confessed to Clarke in the Kansas paddock that he defined his own internal cowardice by the fact that, when he was younger, he found himself haunted and tormented in dreams by the POW scenes from the film "The Deer Hunter". And he supposed that Clarke or any combat vet could easily condemn him. This was, after all, a man unable to sleep because of a war movie.
Ex-racer Shane Clarke, who had seen and lived experiences that assuredly made a film about the Viet Nam war seem like a tea party, answered without judgment and offered some support, saying when he was younger that movie wasn't his favorite either.
"You know," Clarke said, his eyes never wavering, "when I saw you and Evan at Road America a few years ago, I was home on leave. To get to Kansas I had to actually fly into Detroit and the airport was a mess when I landed, my flight was canceled and they were putting us on the next one so we all had to re-book. At the gate, one of my fellow travelers was standing at the desk and he was just livid because of the delay and also because he was not going to be able to sit in an aisle seat on the next flight.
"He was very angry and was being abusive to the person from the airline who was trying to re-book him. He was crossing the line in so many ways. Maybe when I raced I was too intense, but I think if that had happened before I went to Iraq, I probably would have went up to that guy, put my face next to his and made sure he calmed down and started acting appropriately. Instead, I just stood there and even smiled a little.
"I didn't enjoy it, what he was saying, but to me, what was beautiful about that was that this guy, as a citizen of the United States, had no idea how good he has it. No idea. Which, if you think about it, describes many people in the US. And I don't see that as a bad thing, either. I see that as a sign of how great this country is, that even when things seem bad, underneath, by comparison, they are actually great."
Shane Clarke currently works for American Suzuki.