Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Rookie Stripe: Why Drivers Risk Their Lives to Race -- a Rookie’s Perspective

Credit: IndyCar.com
I had another topic planned for the Rookie Stripe column this week, but when the news of Indy Car driver Justin Wilson’s death broke on Twitter, it took a back seat to a more timely post. To see any dedicated athlete succumb to injury takes your breath away, but to see such a talented man taken too early breaks open the painful scars of tragic racing accidents past.

Justin Wilson was a professional open-wheel racing driver from Great Britain; a part-timer in the IndyCar Series driving the No. 25 Honda for Andretti Autosport. Married with two daughters, he passed away on August 24, 2015, the day after being hit by debris from rookie Sage Karam's car at Pocono Raceway. Unlike NASCAR, IndyCar vehicles have open cockpits, meaning a significantly higher risk of head injuries, even with helmets.

Whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCar, sprint cars or any other form of racing, there’s no question it’s a dangerous sport. When you’re pitting humans against each other driving machines at high speeds, danger is inherent. From NASCAR’s Fireball Roberts in 1964 to Adam Petty in 2000 to Dale Earnhardt in 2001, then Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Jason Leffler in 2013, among others, racing accidents happen, including fatal ones. Over the years, safety has improved, including technology, speed limits, car technology, SAFER barriers and other series-mandated specifications. But there will always be the chance of peril.

Most people, especially those who don’t follow racing, ask why? Why do they race, when it is so dangerous? Why do they risk it?

To people on the outside it’s dubiously confusing, and I have to admit I’m kind of still in the crosshairs of being an outsider and a full-fledged fan. I’ve been around NASCAR for a year and a half. I may not be the most tenderfooted of rookies anymore, but accidents make me take pause. It doesn’t help that I’m the type who internalizes tragedies and lets them become unnecessary mental manifestations.

But as I’ve come to know NASCAR, I better understand.

To be a race car driver takes a special person, one who puts up with the mental and physical demands of being in the car and a grueling season, but also the unceasing pressure to perform. In my opinion, what sets race car drivers apart from other professional athletes is a gritty, natural-born love for what they do to the point that for many of them, it’s all they do. Whether it’s Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Kasey Kahne racing Xfinity and National Camping World Truck Series races on their off nights or Tony Stewart showing up at a dirt track, their mettle is just a little bit different from those in other sports.

It's a love like no other.

There is a discernible, fiery, yet often unspoken passion in racing that seems to intoxicate us. It’s a feeling that’s spliced throughout racing, from fans to pit crews to drivers and everyone in between. We thrive on the speed, and when drivers get heated with each other, it gets our pulses racing. The action and danger is part of what makes motorsports so exhilarating.

Our drivers are our daredevils and our heroes. They put their lives on the line at track after track, week after week. They do it for the glory of the sport, but more so they do it for us, the fans. And in our heart of hearts, we love that they do that.

Yet even with the ruthless nature of the sport, racers are a family. They’re competitors on the track, but they understand each other because they’re of the same breed. They support one another through thick and thin. Week after week, year after year, they come back to compete simply because they love racing, love the excitement and love their fans.

Thank you for taking the time to read my perspective in a more-somber-than-usual Rookie Stripe column. For further insights, here's an in-depth read from someone who knew Wilson well.

Race in peace, Justin Wilson.

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