The death of racer and all around good guy Justin Wilson has hit the racing and enthusiast community hard. Though I didn’t know him myself, we share a name, he’s younger than me, and I know someone who was at that race, and had a nice chat with him Sunday morning. But anytime a racer dies, no matter who it is, what car they drive, or what series they race in, it always hits us right in the feels.
There’s an inherent risk to taking a big lump of metal, plastic, and carbon fiber, and pushing it and yourself to the limits of speed and control on the track. Things can go very wrong very quickly. Wilson did nothing wrong himself – it was Sage Karam who lost control and hit the wall ahead of him. But Karam isn’t to blame, either. He hit no other cars, and his severed nosecone hitting Wilson in the head was a freak accident that only chaos theory has a chance of explaining. Despite all of the safety precautions, things can still go pear-shaped.
This is still true at the amateur level. There’s a reason why we all have to sign a long liability waiver before we can even enter a parking lot strewn with cones, let alone a race track. People have occasionally died at HPDE events, and, though it’s extremely rare, even at autocrosses. I’ve personally seen someone get hit by car that skidded off an autocross course. Fortunately he only suffered bumps and bruises, but it shows you don’t even have to be in a car to get hurt.
So why do we risk it?
“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”
Steve McQueen was a racer himself, and his line from LeMans is often quoted to answer this question. It’s true of any potentially risky sport. Motorcyclists routinely accept that every ride could be our last, but we do it anyway because we accept the risks, do what we can to mitigate them, and enjoy what we do so much that we choose to do it anyway. Skydiving, bungee jumping, and many other sports fall into the same category. I could just stay home and get my racing jollies through iRacing, with no risk to anything but my bank account. But it’s not the same as the real thing.
“There’s no point in living if you can’t feel the life.”
This key line from The World Is Not Enough is quite relevant in this context as well. A life where I wake up, go to work, go home, watch TV, go to bed, lather, rinse, repeat is not a life that I want to live. Living, to me, should involve getting out there and doing things. My day job may not be thrilling, but getting there in a sports car or on a motorcycle, rather than an everyday econobubble, makes life more interesting. I may write rather dry software documentation by day, but a few times a year I go to the track and pretend to be a race car driver. My BRZ is fun on the street, but only when I get it out on the track can I really start to use its full capabilities. Exploring those capabilities is fun, especially when there are real consequences if I do something stupid and spin off the track. It’s not the norm, but it does happen. I’ve helped piece together the front of an BMW M3 enough to get home after it kissed the wall after the uphill at Lime Rock.
Interestingly, when we talk about HPDE, autocross, and such, when we talk about risk, we tend to think far more about the car than our own personal safety. My BRZ is currently my only car, and I do buy HPDE insurance for the track events I participate in so I can afford to replace it if I ball it up. A while ago, I bought a Miata with a friend to share for autocross and track events to spare both of us from this fate. It was an inexpensive car, and two of us splitting the costs made it cheaper still. Taking the Miata to the track spared both of our daily drivers from risking damage at the track, and if we broke it on Sunday, we still had our daily drivers to get to work on Monday.
But what about our personal safety? Other than the required Snell approved helmet, we tend not to think about it too much. Some of us invest in HPDE insurance for the car, but how many of us check to make sure our medical insurance will cover us in the worst case scenario? Some of us, particularly with convertibles, may add roll bars, and many of us add racing harnesses. But that’s more to meet the rules of the event’s sanctioning body than concern for our own safety. Most people I know who have added harnesses to their street/track car did it so that the harness would hold them in place better than the stock seat belt so they could drive the car better, without hanging onto the steering wheel tightly to not slide around in the seat. Safety, while still on the list, is a lower priority.
Still, in the types of events we tend to drive, the risk of bodily harm or death is quite small. Cars go off the track and sometimes hit solid objects, but people generally walk away with no harm except their pride. But make no mistake – the excrement can impact the rotational circulation device anytime, anywhere, and the consequences of a mistake at speeds you should never reach on the street are far more severe than what the car was designed to handle.
Like motorcyclists, we tend to accept that risk anytime we get in a car, put on a helmet, and exit pit lane. We know the risk is there, but we tend not to think about it, and instead focus on the task at hand – driving a car on a track to the best of our ability, as fast as possible within our limits, and safely.
Why do we do it? Because we love it. We love to drive fast, and rather than drive like idiots on the street, we take it to the track, where we’re allowed and encouraged to bomb through the turns as fast as the car will let us, then put the hammer down into triple digit speeds on the main straightaway. We’re able to drive the way we really want to drive, plus we have the opportunity to learn to drive better, improving our skills under these unique circumstances. Best of all, we take these skills with us back to the street, and have more control over our cars than most people on the road with us. One could argue that taking the risks of a track day pays off in improving your driving skills and further mitigating the risks of driving on the street. I also feel less tempted to take that on-ramp at 80mph, because I already know perfectly well that the car is capable of doing it at 90. I don’t have to prove it, because I already did on the track.
I could argue the educational and safety aspects some more, but let’s be realistic. We do it because we love to drive fast, enjoy our cars, and put them through their paces. In addition to the adrenalin rush of driving on the track itself, I also feel a lingering euphoria for a few days afterward, because wow, that was awesome. Like an addict, I keep coming back for more, because I love it. I know the potential consequences if I get it wrong. I accept that, and do it anyway, because that’s what living means to me.
(Top photo from http://justinwilson.co.uk/ . Other photos by the author.)