This is not a eulogy. I did not know Justin Wilson, who lost his life after being hit by debris in the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway, but he was friendly when I met him in passing. I completely trust the comments of his friends and competitors as they exoll his virtues as a man, husband, father, brother, friend, and racer. Communities grow close through tragedy and grieve by sharing stories and sadness. Like many others, I am uncomfortable at funerals and memorials and do not share my grief well. It is mine and I keep it close.
My Twitter feed after the announcement of Justin Wilson’s death was filled with tributes and remembrances, as one would expect. It as also filled with people trying to come to grips with the moment. Some said they could no longer be fans of a sport where people died. Auto racing has always been deadly, yet somehow we are surprised by the ugly fact when it claims another victim. Mortal risk cannot be legislated out of a grand prix or boxing or horse racing or any other event where such risk is part of the allure. Football still seems to maintain a huge fan base despite its long-term tragic effects. It’s just that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) kills you slowly instead of all at once. And since the football players who die from this disease brought on by violent contact are old and retired, it does not diminish the popularity of the sport. Out of sight, out of mind.
But Justin Wilson’s death was not out of sight. We saw it. And it is certainly not out of mind. People ask what can be done. Canopies and windscreens may make the cars safer, but they cannot eliminate the specter of death. The truth is simple: some things are dangerous. Can the danger be mitigated? Certainly. Can it be eliminated? Absolutely not. Open-wheel racing will continue to research how to make racing safer. They will never make it safe.
IndyCar drivers live on the knife’s edge always. If someone else is a few tenths faster, then they have to be faster, too. I contend that most drivers see racing through a zero-sum mentality – for every winner there is a loser. The harsh reality is that auto racing, whether at Pocono, Indianapolis, Daytona, Le Mans, or a local short track, is zero-sum, also. You win or you lose. You live or you die.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” He could have been writing about Justin Wilson. He could also have been writing about the 126 police officers who died in the line of duty last year. Or the 64 firefighters who perished. Or the 6717 service men and women who have given the “last full measure of devotion”¹ in our country’s war on terror. Heroes are all about us.
I love auto racing deeply. From my first races at Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson, Indiana; Mt. Lawn Speedway in New Castle, Indiana; and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was compelled to be a fan. The color, sound, speed, and danger pulled me into racing’s orbit, and here I am still. Justin Wilson, like the soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who gave their lives in service to their country and communities, made a choice to get into a car to test his mettle against other racers, speed, and death. And next week, racers everywhere will get in their cars to do the same. I salute them all.
¹Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”