Being a racing fan can bring incredible thrills and – for people who don’t follow auto racing – unthinkable moments of dread and horror. I felt the later on Sunday with the news that two-time and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash early in the season-ending IndyCar event at Las Vegas. Despite this blog’s stated goals, it’s tough for me to write about this from a “fan’s” perspective – after all, I’m writing about someone dying at 33, and an event that has left a widow and two young children without a father. What it all means to a “fan” is staggeringly insignificant.
But it’s impossible to be a racing fan and not reflect on your relationship with the sport after a driver is killed or seriously injured in a crash. I choose to follow a sport that is inherently dangerous – in fact, you have to be pretty defensive and delusional to say the danger isn’t part of its appeal. Race car drivers are in a constant battle with the limits – of their cars, of their own mettle and skill and of safety. As fans, we can understand this battle on a visceral level and get more vicarious enjoyment than watching someone hit a ball with a bat. Watching race cars battle at 220 mph is thrilling in an obvious and instant manner. Unfortunately, so are the occasional horrific consequences.
In 30 years of going to races (primarily sprint cars and other open-wheel dirt cars), I’ve been extremely fortunate not to see a driver killed in a crash, but that’s been more of a product of chance. I’ve seen drivers break their necks in crashes; I’ve walked away from races sure that a driver was killed in a crash I’d just witnessed; I’ve been at tracks for memorials for drivers who were killed the night before. Death and serious injury have been around me at the track, even if I’ve managed to mostly avoid dealing with it directly.
As a racing fan, I know that the potential to witness tragedy is achingly real, and magnified in a sense that fans of other sports don’t have to deal with. I can find reams of data about the high numbers of death or serious injuries in football or even competitive cheerleading versus auto racing, and it still isn’t comforting; football fans can feel confident that the odds of something very bad happening in a game they are watching is incredibly small. If you watch enough racing, “something very bad” becomes something you expect to eventually happen.
Of course, racing has grown almost exponentially safer over the past few decades. Advancements in technology have led to barriers that can absorb the impact of a crash, cars designed to diffuse the energy of a crash, and safety equipment that gives the driver the best chance of survival. As recently as the 1960s, safety was such a secondary concern that many open-wheel drivers refused to put roll cages on their cars, referring to them as “sissy bars” and mocking drivers who used them. Over time, the attitudes of drivers, fans and race officials have changed, and expectations of what is an “acceptable risk” in racing have evolved to make the sport much safer than ever before.
Then again, increased safety can also lead to complacency and make it easy to forget that “incredibly safer” doesn’t mean “safe.” Seeing a driver killed now (especially a young, talented and popular driver like Wheldon) is jarring because we’re used to seeing spectacular crashes and watching drivers walk away. As modern-day racing fans, we don’t deal with dread any time we see a crash like fans a generation ago had; we’re able to feel our pulse quicken when we see a spectacular crash because, yeah, it looks bad, but everyone will be fine – they always are. Except that sometimes they aren’t.
I think almost any race car fan feels guilt after a driver is killed on the track; as much as fans like to repeat the lines they hear their favorite drivers state about how drivers “know the risk” and how a driver “died doing what they loved,” that’s talk that helps you go to sleep at night and justify going to the next race. Rationally, there’s no reason I should go to races, knowing what I know about the potential risks. But realistically, I’ll be at the next race I can make it to, trying to let the thrills I get override the bad thoughts that are always in the back of my head.