By now anyone even vaguely familiar with the idea that some people gather on weekends to drive cars quickly around closed circuits is aware of Dan Wheldon's death due to injuries incurred in a 15-car wreck at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend. The loss of the two-time Indy 500 winner has prompted a widespread discussion on the safety of IndyCar, banked ovals like the track in question in particular, and general issues of speed and human survival rates. But one author, Megan Greenwell of GOOD.is, has suggested the incident should mean the end of all racing. Everywhere.
If you're like us, that just might be the most incomprehensible statement you've heard this year. If you're not as much a racing fan, you might entertain the idea as a legitimate, if impractical, sentiment. It is, however, not. It's not even rational.
Wheldon's death at the Vegas 300 puts a very sharp point on the matter of safety, especially when the situation of that particular weekend had been so clearly foreseen: too many cars on track, speeds too high, no way for drivers to avoid or react to crashes ahead in time--the conditions were simply beyond the limits of human capability unless everything went perfectly to plan. As we all know, things did not.
But--and this is central to any discussion about the safety of racing, or any other endeavor humans engage in voluntarily, for fun and profit--it was a known risk, and one each driver in the cockpit that day assumed with full knowledge. No one on earth understands better than the racing drivers the risks and dangers associated with traveling in excess of 220 mph in a very small, open-cockpit, open-wheel vehicle with dozens of others in close proximity.
Phil Hill, a legendary Formula 1 pilot and early safety advocate, lived through the bloodiest period of racing history. He saw many of his friends and contemporaries, all skilled, accomplished drivers in their own right, die at the wheel in races he himself entered. As a driver for Scuderia Ferrari in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hill saw almost every teammate he raced with die. The worry over the mortal peril he faced each time he went out on the racetrack literally ate at him, causing him physical illness. In his last year with Ferrari, Hill said, according to Robert Daley's 1963 book The Cruel Sport, "I no longer have as much need to race, to win. I don't have as much hunger anymore. I am no longer willing to risk killing myself."
Today, things have changed drastically, thanks in part to the actions of the drivers and drivers associations, and eventually, to the concerns of the series' themselves. Tony George, former president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was one of the driving financial forces behind development of softer crash barriers for high-speed race tracks, a project later joined by NASCAR, which ultimately resulted in the SAFER barrier now used in many series.
Despite the improvements to safety from Hill's day, racing remains a dangerous sport. Every driver knows this--and hungers for the competition, the victory, the sheer thrill of commanding a race car at the limits of human ability in spite of it, perhaps even, in part, because of it.
The same applies to any number of dangerous human activities, including sports like sailing, skydiving, scuba diving, and skiing. People regularly weigh the risks against the rewards and decide, both individually and as a group, that the activity is worthwhile. The same is continually done for racing.
The same is also done, by the way, for driving on the open road. Each year tens of thousands of people are killed just driving to get around and conduct their lives. Would Ms. Greenwell have us all stop driving altogether? She states the matter thus: "And if there’s no way to reduce the risk of death to the point that drivers don’t assume they may die every time they step into their cars, it’s time to ban the sport—whether IndyCar or auto racing overall."
So the risks are known, and accepted, but statistically, how great are they? There are, at most, something like a few hundred, perhaps a thousand, professional drivers in the U.S. at any one time. Only a handful have died on course in the last decade, despite hundreds of events per year across multiple series, seeing hundreds of thousands or even millions of vehicle miles logged. The statistical likelihood of dying in a race during an entire career is a fraction of a percent at most--something on the order of a 1 in 300 chance over a career.
On the other hand, we have about 100 million licensed drivers in the U.S. and about 30,000 vehicle-related deaths each year. That's only a tiny 0.0003 percent, or roughly 1 in 3,333 chance of death per year, but take those chances for a decade and you're much closer to the racer's chance--and to the length of a racer's career. Take those chances for five decades and the math might actually shift in favor of the racer.
Is, then, Ms. Greenwell's problem the risk itself, or merely the awareness the drivers have of the fact that they're driving quickly in close proximity to things that could stop them abruptly? Awareness of the fact that a mechanical failure could cause a fatal accident? Awareness that a lack of attention or a simple mistake could result in the death of themselves or one of their friends?
It has to be the awareness of those risks she has issue with; all of those things can (and do, daily) happen to people on the way to work, or to pick up the kids. The only difference is that most people don't think about it.
Perhaps that's Ms. Greenwell's problem. Rather than reasoning out the fact that humans have always engaged in (and likely always will) contests and activities that demand supreme ability and concentration with the looming risk of death for many kinds of rewards, she simply didn't think about it. She just wrote about it.
Or perhaps she thinks we should all hang up our keys, send our cars to the junkyard, and walk home for the holidays. After all, as she says after calling for a ban on racing, "This, I know, will never happen. Racing is a hugely popular sport and a multibillion-dollar industry... But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do."