Monday, April 4, 2011

Brazil's Biggest Funeral

Charles de Gaulle once remarked, "Brazil is not a serious country."
Charles de Gaulle was wrong.
Brazil is a serious country, it's just that Brazil takes some things more seriously than others.
Football (Soccer) for one thing.
Formula One racing for another.

The most well-attended funeral in Brazilian history wasn't for an ex-head-of-State, or for a princess of the Brazilian Royal House, or for an assassinated President.
It was for this guy:

He drove racing cars.
And some people say he drove them better than anyone who ever lived.

On May 1st, 1994, while leading the field in the San Marino Gran Prix, Ayrton Senna's car hit a retaining wall at 135 miles an hour. A piece of the right front wheel catapulted back into the cockpit and struck Senna on the helmet. His head was driven back against the headrest. Multiple skull fractures resulted. He was airlifted to the hospital at Bologna, where he was pronounced dead. Later, the cause of the accident was determined to be a failure of the steering column.

When going through the wreckage, the examiners discovered a furled Austrian flag. Senna, who fully intended to win the race, had planned to wave it on his victory lap to honor Roland Ratzenberger...

...killed in the qualifying round of the previous day when his car struck the outside wall at 196 miles an hour.

The Austrian was the penultimate driver killed in a Formula One race.

Senna was the last.

A million people turned out for his funeral.

And, today, more than a decade and a half after his death, people still go to his last resting place to heap flowers on his grave.

Senna is honored by Brazilians not only because he was a great sportsman, but because he was an excellent human being who left most of the proceeds of his merchandising to charity.

And he is deeply missed.

Leighton - Monday


  1. for a few years while I was a university student the Australian leg of the F1 Grand Prix was held in my town and I had a gig as an usher. One year I attened a Pitt Strait party for all the course staff and lots of the drivers attended too. Most of them were incredibly standoffish and only mixed with each other or their minders but Senna was mixing with all, signing autographs and generally having time for everyone who wanted it. It was the year he first won the championship - '88 I think - but he didn't know he was going to win at the time of the party so he'd have been within his rights to be off somewhere else. He was definitely the favourite of all the course staff after that party - even those of us like me who had little idea about F1. They named a part of the circuit after him and even though it's not used for F1 these days it is used for other motor racing and last time I checked (a couple of years ago) there was still a small memorial to Senna in the park through which the street circuit runs.

  2. Thank you, Bernadette, for that input.
    I've always had a special place in my heart for Senna.
    Once, when she was coming home from a visit to the United States, Eide, my wife, was given a seat on the aircraft next to him.
    It was early days in his career, but there were lots of Brazilians on the flight, and his fame was building.
    A number of them came and asked for his autograph.
    Eide, being Eide, asked him why.
    "I drive racing cars," he said.
    "Oh," she said, "Nelson Piquet."
    (Another Brazilain driver. They were great rivals at the time.)
    "No," he said. "My name is Ayrton Senna."
    He was gracious in his correction -- as he was in everything in life.
    And they chatted about all sorts of other things on the long flight back to Brazil.
    She cried all day long on the day of his death.

  3. It must have been difficult for Eide because the people who lined the streets thought they knew the celebrity but she got to know the man.

    I can't think of any sport star in recent years who has died at the top of the game. Now, with the kind of coverage celebrities get, fair or unfair, everyone's reputation gets smudged a bit because people seem so eager to concentrate on faults.

    It would seem that people should get more respect if they admit to their failings and then show how they overcame them. That would make them far better role models.