Racing is inherently dangerous. It always has been. Deaths happen. The racing community is sad for a while, but they move on after a year or so.
The tragic death of Justin Wilson, a driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series, shook the racing community. Justin used social media religiously, and many of his fans felt like family.
Social media creates an artifice of closeness. People feel like they are part of the lives of that particular driver. This makes it harder for some people to process the death of someone they felt close to. Fatalities are still very common in the racing world. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Justin Wilson was an incredibly kind, good-hearted person who deserved only the best things in life. However, every race car driver makes a deal with the devil. That deal is that you can get killed, but you’ll die doing what you love. Racing might be safer now than it was five years ago, but it’s still incredibly risky.
The recent deaths of Jules Bianchi, a young French Formula 1 driver, and Justin Wilson, the caring, charismatic British IndyCar driver, have left me wondering if the danger that served as motorsports’ earliest appeal has run its course. Do we, as an automotive enthusiast community, have the gall to handle even more deaths?
Race car drivers in the 1950s through 1970s were modern day gladiators. Part of the reason that people flocked to the races was because of the danger element. The living legends of that era are the ones that survived. Surviving might be a greater accomplishment than any of the wins or championships that they hold. People don’t seem to accept the risks of their sport like they used to. A football player in the 1950s knew that he was going to have a traumatic injury because of the lack of safety equipment.
When Dan Wheldon died in 2011, people walked around the paddock like zombies. People seem to forget that these cars are 200-plus mph death traps that can kill you at any time. People just don’t seem to comprehend it. These cars have become so safe that people have become desensitized to death, and for older race fans (baby boomer age), it’s just part of the racing routine.
Many race car drivers in the 1950s through 1970s didn’t start a family because they didn’t want to leave behind a widow or young children. If you made it to 30 as an IndyCar driver back then, it’s the equivalent of being a front-line soldier who’s been there for 20 years. It doesn’t make what happened to Justin or Jules any less painful, but I think what has happened is that the sport has become so safe that people forget how far the sport has come.
It boils down to this: the marriage of speed, humans, physics, and competition will always produce tragedies. It doesn’t matter what motorsport you compete in. It happens in every sport. Some are just very well publicized. The percentages of deaths in various motorsports may have decreased dramatically since the 1950s through 1970s, but we can’t ignore the fact that death is a foreboding cloud that follows each and every driver. It’s never accepted nor welcomed, but it’s never outside the realm of possibilities.
It’s quite possible that the worst cliche in the world is that a driver died doing something they loved. Duh. If they didn’t love it, they would be doing something else. Nobody holds a gun to their head and tells them to go drive a race car. It doesn’t work that way. They’d much rather die in bed with the spouse of their dreams, not hit a wall at 200 mph or get hit by a flying piece of debris. These drivers don’t have desk jobs.
Being a race car driver is one of the most dangerous jobs one can ask for. Yet, these drivers are at peace with the danger. If they are comfortable with it, then we should too. There’s a racer’s mentality: Racers race, then they mourn.
Yes, we all mourn the losses of Justin and Jules, and I especially mourn the tremendous losses to their families. Jules was just 25, and Justin was 37. Justin left behind a young family. That’s the thing every married racer fears: leaving behind a family.
We would be kidding ourselves if we think that motorsports will ever be 100 percent safe. It has the capability to, but it’s just like being a soldier: you willingly accept the risks associated with your job. You don’t need to fear the reaper if you become a race car driver. Just keep it in the back of your mind.