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.