The racing world suffered a tremendous loss yesterday when Dan Wheldon was killed during an Indy Car race at Las Vegas Motorspeedway. Even though auto racing in general is much safer than it was just 10 years ago, it is still tragic when one of a sport’s athletes loses their life while competing. Because I have a background in auto racing and my lab has done quite a bit of testing of auto racing drivers and pit crews, this type of tragedy hits a little closer to home and always makes watching races a bit more stressful for me.
Ernest Hemingway once said that the only two real sports were auto racing and bullfighting. I presume that part of his reasoning for this quote was that either sport could end the life of the human participant quite quickly and violently. There are few other sports that maintain this much danger to the participant and I wonder if our fascination with auto racing is actually tied to the potential loss of life that is part of the sport. We revel in the thrill of the speed, the adrenaline of the pass, and as long as the drivers are okay, the gut-punch of a big crash. But with death, we are all sobered and remember that auto racing is not just a grown-up version of bumper cars, but can quickly kill and maim the participants that so blithely climb into these powerful vehicles.
To a large extent, we all grow complacent and forget how dangerous auto racing is. We forget that these vehicles are purpose built to do tremendous speeds in a straight line (or around a curve), but when they turn sideways, backwards, or upside down, they have a tendency to fly, often times with severe consequences. We’ve gotten used to seeing highlight crash clips from NASCAR, orFormula 1, or Indy racing where immediately after the crash, the drivers get out, wave to the crowd, and in a few minutes are on TV telling the viewing audience what it felt like to see that wall coming at them at high speeds. We used to that until, of course, it becomes too real and that driver cannot walk away or wave to the crowd or tell us what it was like to ride through that storm. Then we act shocked, because we’ve forgotten how dangerous auto racing can be, and we feel guilty, because we called it entertainment when these athletes were putting their lives on the line.
While it may not seem like it now, it is certainly true that safety innovations over the past 10 years have allowed drivers to ride through some fierce crashes and to walk away. If you don’t believe that last statement, check out some of the clips linked above. These were vicious, violent, and dangerous crashes – and all the drivers walked away. We should also remember that of the 15 cars that crashed in that one wreck at Las Vegas yesterday - the wreck that was so violent and fiery that it is hard to imagine anyone getting out okay - that 14 drivers did make it out okay. Surely without the carbon fiber tubs and seats, the head restraints, the SAFER barriers, and the catch fences – all safety innovations that have been largely incorporated in the past 10 years – there would have been fewer drivers walking away.
So, while we remember a driver who wanted nothing more than to go fast and win, and while we ponder what it is about auto racing that makes it so attractive, we need to reflect on how far the sport has come and thank those that have worked hard to make auto racing a safer sport. And then, enjoy the next race you watch and appreciate the fact that these drivers (and pit crews) work hard and put a lot on the line, for your entertainment.