Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Wilson's Death Raises Familiar Questions

Justin Wilson passed away today, roughly 36 hours after an errant piece of crash debris struck his helmet at Pocono Raceway.

Sunday’s incident added yet another name to the list of racers killed in recent years; a list that is painfully, gut-wrenchingly long. 

Adam Petty. Kenny Irwin. Tony Roper. Greg Moore. Dale Earnhardt. Eric Medlen. Scott Kalitta. Dan Wheldon. Jason Leffler.

The names spill forth, one after another, like the endless tolling of a bell that cannot be silenced. A pall has once again been cast over our sport, leaving us to grieve the loss of a young man who rarely – if ever – was unaccompanied by a smile.

Wilson was not a stereotypical Indy Car driver. At 6-feet, 4-inches tall, he dwarfed his competition physically. His talent was towering, as well. The high point of his career came in the mid-2000s, when he and AJ Allmendinger tore the Champ Car World Series to pieces. Sadly, Champ Car went the way of the dinosaurs in 2007, leaving Wilson to scrounge for scraps in Indy Car. For every season with a contending team like Newman-Haas, there were two or three with an underfunded Dale Coyne or Dreyer and Reinbold organization. Success came less frequently, as Wilson struggled to find a steady, competitive place on the Indy Car grid.

Many years ago, he spoke candidly to me about the frustration of being within arm’s reach of the brass ring, without ever being able to grab it.

“If I was smart, I would have given up on Open Wheel racing years ago,” he said. “There are so few teams with the resources to win races and contend for championships, and if you’re not in one of those seats, you’ve got no chance. I should have put my effort into Sports Cars five years ago. If I had, I would probably have a top-notch Daytona Prototype ride by now. I’d be racing for wins at Daytona and Sebring and Lemans, instead of struggling to be competitive here.

“But I can’t help myself, I love Open Wheel racing.”

That’s the way it works for racers. They love what they do, and they risk everything to do it. Each week, they talk themselves into climbing back behind the wheel, secure in the knowledge that while death may occasionally walk down their street, it will never knock at their door.

“I’m better than that,” they say. “I’m at the peak of my abilities, I train tirelessly and I have the best safety equipment that money can buy. It may happen to others, but it can’t happen to me.”

Well, it can happen. It happened to Justin Wilson Sunday afternoon in Pennsylvania.

At times like this, most of us make a conscious choice to focus on the good times; the champagne showers in Victory Lane, the celebratory burnouts and the kissing of the bricks. It's a coping mechanism that helps us find our way through the darkest of days. No matter how hard I try to accentuate the positive, however, I can’t help remembering the horror and violence of Wilson’s final moments.

I also can’t help wondering if it was worth it.

At this point, I’ve simply seen far too many grieving widows, too many parents faced with the unfathomable task of burying a child, too many toddlers in the front row of a funeral, blissfully ignorant of how their lives have changed forever.

I’m sad for Justin Wilson, his family, his team, his friends and fans. Along with the sadness, however, there is an equal measure of anger. Anger that so many of my racing friends have been taken over the years. And above all, anger at the selfishness that compels otherwise sane individuals to weigh the adrenaline rush of motorized competition against the possibility of leaving a grief-stricken wife and family behind; then somehow choose the rush.

Next week, I’ll accept that choice again. But today, it’s a tough pill to swallow.

I’m tired of hearing people say, “He was doing what he loved to do.” That’s a load of manure. No driver loves to crash. No driver loves leaving their wife and children behind in a horrifying moment of unfathomable violence.

No driver wants to die.

I love this sport. But on days like this, I hate it with a ferocity that is almost beyond description.


  1. Anonymous6:22 PM

    Why doesn't Blaise Alexander ever get mentioned in these types are articles?

    1. Because he's trying to make a point, not a list.

  2. I agree Dave. I hate "well he was doing what he loved." My Dad was a cop shot in the line of duty. I can't tell you how many people kept telling me that. I wanted to scream. My thoughts and prayers to the Wilson Family

  3. Many people have dangerous professions. This one is just public. If a truck driver looses his life on the road, do we quit driving? If a plane crashes do we quit flying. Some seemingly safe jobs, loose lives. Heath care workers have contracted illnesses and died.....do they quit? Sometimes, things just go wrong. Those participating want you to move on, take care of those they care for, and never hesitate to question their actions, for they are gifted and following a path that is truly part of their being. Who they are is why they have those families and friends. Celebrate their lives........in honor.

  4. Anonymous10:08 PM

    Thanks Dave very well spoken. I would have to agree totally

  5. If Indycar is not going to place a canopy over the drivers, then they really have to minimize the risk. First, they should not be racing at Pocono. The turns are to long and winding. But so are the turns at California. That's what I mean at minimizing the risk. You have to race at Indy, California, Texas. But limit to that. Why have 5-7 races where these cars are going insanely fast speeds with their heads sticking out of the car. Nascar has not had a death in any of it's top levels for a while, but the nature of the sport says there will be another one. How long did F1 go without a death until the driver passed away this year. If you recall a few years ago when Mark Martin's #55 hit the side of the pit road wall, if you watch the tape, another two feet or so and that wall would of penetrated that drivers compartment; and as small as Mark Martin is, it could have killed him. You never know how these things will happen, but you have to minimize the risk. I think Nascar's biggest concern is something getting into the drivers compartment by a crash. Another car, some part of the track. The drivers side window is not protected other then the net.

  6. I had taken my step son to Mid Ohio for the Indy race, we were planning on going to Pocono too, but a family issue came up that prevented us from going. All I can say is thank goodness, I had the race on DVR, watched it, almost threw up knowing there was no chance of his living through that accident. Deleted the race from the DVR, it has made the list of things I never want to see again.

  7. Anonymous1:09 AM

    Thank you, Dave, for your very eloquent words. And thank you for skewering that most feeble of platitudes (“He was doing what he loved to do.”). There are no palliatives for occasions such as this.

  8. Anonymous9:29 AM

    There have been so many in the last 15 years that it's so hard and brings back to many bad memories to think of them all. In NASCAR alone there have been 5 since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s passing in 2001. Granted they were not in Sprint Cup, but they raced in lower sanctioned NASCAR Series. Tommy Baldwin Sr. comes to mind too. I can't begin n to fathom how many there have been world wide regardless of the series they race in.

  9. Doug M.10:21 AM

    Very well said, Dave. As usual.

    When something like this happens, I look at my 11 year old son, and wonder why I fostered a love of motorsports in him as I have to tell him about another driver passing away. I wonder why I have let him become such a rabid fan of all types of motorized racing. After all, baseball fans don't have to worry about their favorite player getting killed in a game.

    I see the joy in his eyes as he spends 10 minutes talking to Clay Millican in the pits, or sits at a table with Jason Line's crew for breakfast because we are in the same hotel and they invite him over. I watch how much in awe he is when his favorite dirt modified driver lets him sit in his car prior to the Saturday night show, or how he says his best day ever was walking around Circuit of the Americas and listening to the F1 cars go screaming by him. There is a lot of great in this sport. It gets in your blood. It also causes a lot of heartache. At times like this I wonder why I ever allowed him to care about it.

  10. My son drove 1,000,000 miles a year as a truck driver. He loved his job. When his family came along, he cut back on the mileage to be home with them. Last year, on a family vacation, he and his entire family were killed, in of all things, an accident with a truck. No one's fault, just a freak accident. There's danger everywhere. My heart goes out to Justin ' family, I know what they're going through 4 times over. Do what you love, because you never know what the next minute brings.

  11. Amen Dave, a wonderfully written mirror of my feelings...

  12. If I were to agree with Moody, I should stop driving my car, cutting my grass, swimming, and so on. We can only make the world so safe, and then it is up to us how far we want to push it.

    1. Over-reacting never gets old, does it, Joe?

  13. Anonymous5:36 PM

    They keep calling this a "freak accident". Yet over the last several years there are many examples of the exposed head being primary point of contact. Jules Bianchi in F1 just died having never regained consciousness from his head being primary contact with a crane. Weldon's first point of contact was the helmet. Massa in F1 was hit in the visor of his helmet with a spring. Back further, Greg Moore was killed after his helmet hit the wall first. Senna was killed when a suspension piece hit him in the helmet. There are other examples as well. How many times does something similar need to happen in open wheel/open cockpit cars before it's no longer classified as a "freak accident"??

  14. Anonymous10:42 PM

    That race was jinxed from the beginning. They had to start 3 times to get the first green. 7 wide, are you kidding me? How many very talented drivers just lost control for no apparent reason? Only half the field was running by the end. This is Pocono not Talladega. And who can forget the fox. You just knew something was brewing.

    Indy Car has some very serious issues to tackle. I would put where they race somewhere near the top of the list.

  15. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Preach it Brother Dave...