Why We Drive: Thoughts on Racing and the Fragility of Life

April 25, 2014 by V.R.M. - No Comments

[This post originally appeared in The Truth About Cars on Nov. 3, 2013]

The sad news came on the morning after my husband and I had returned from a very enjoyable weekend at MidOhio, where we had spent three days driving with the Ohio Valley Region Porsche Club. Sean Edwards, 26, had died in a crash at Queensland Raceway in Australia. Edwards, a race car driver who was leading the Porsche Supercup and who was recognized as an all-around GT talent, perished while driver-coaching a 20-year-old aspiring race car driver.

His death stopped me in my tracks. We had just seen Sean at the Circuit of the Americas a few weeks prior, wished him good luck, and watched him drive the hell out of the MOMO Porsche, overcoming a variety of on-track challenges. He was by no means a close friend, but we respected him and admired his talent and racecraft. His friendly smile and admission that he was new to Instagram, but was enjoying it, haunted me.

Sean’s death served as a stark reminder that no matter how safe race cars and race tracks have become, the risk of terrible injury and death are still very much real. Roll cages, HANS devices and nets do wonders to help keep drivers safe, but when your car leaves the race track at 220 km/hr, strikes a concrete wall masked by a few tires, and bursts into flames, as Sean’s did, no amount of safety devices are going to keep you safe.

The problem is, those of us who have come to love motorsport in the last decade have been lulled by a false sense of security. Deaths in motorsport used to be commonplace before 1980, but these days they can be considered rare. When we witness Allan McNish’s spectacular accident at LeMans (2011) and watch him walk out of the remnants of the Audi R18 a little shaken, we believe drivers are immortal and racecars are completely safe these days. But then reality reminds us this is not the case. This has been a particularly bad year — we had already lost Allan Simonsen when his Aston Martin hit Armco in front of a tree at LeMans, and then Sean in Australia.

After Sean’s death, I found myself questioning my decision to participate in motorsports events. I am the mother of two 8-year-olds who depend on me for care. Is my decision to participate in motorsport an irresponsible and selfish one? Granted, driver’s ed events are nowhere near as dangerous as door to door racing, and a Spec Miata does not travel at the same speeds a Cup Car or DP do. But by easing myself into a race car and pushing the limits of grip, I am, arguably, taking an unnecessary risk that could leave my daughters with an injured or dead parent. These are not easy things to consider when our family considers motorsport such a large part of our lives.

My husband and I both participate in motorsports events – we met at a race track, and have always driven (I drive in D.E.s and he driver coaches and races). Friends have often asked me if I am ever uneasy about him being in a race car, and I answer that no, I am not. This is a partial lie; the truthful answer would be, “I am not, most of the time.” I am not when I consider that he is a safe driver, has excellent car control, and maintains his cars well. I am when I am reminded that no matter how talented you are, and how well prepared you are, things sometimes do go wrong and accidents happen. But just as you send your child to school each morning and suppress the thought that he or she may get hurt while you’re not there, I convince myself my husband will return home safely.

So why do we do it? Sean Edwards was the son of Guy Edwards, a Formula 1 driver who helped pull Nikki Lauda out of a flame-engulfed car in the 1976 German Grand Prix. He presumably did not grow up innocently idolizing motorsport, but was aware that things could go frighteningly wrong. Drivers know the risks, and yet choose to get behind the wheel time and time again.

I can’t speak for Sean or even my husband, but I know why I choose to drive. The race car, with its raw edges, tight spaces and tight belts is uncomfortable when one first gets in. The helmet constricts your view and the HANS limits your ability to turn your head. It’s loud and uncomfortable as you drive your way to pit lane. But then the green flag flies, and all the discomfort goes away. Your breathing slows and for the next half hour or more, you are living within each moment. The level of concentration driving requires is nothing short of absolute – you must stay in the moment, consider the car’s feedback, and prepare for the next corner, but only the next one.

For those of us who have spent a lifetime attempting to espouse the teachings of Buddhism and Yoga, which encourage practitioners to stay in the present moment and not waste time on the past or the future, a race car at speed is the perfect place to live this teaching. You simply cannot be anywhere but right there, driving. The result is nothing short of absolute calm and joy, all while traveling at high speeds. Then, you exit the car and life returns – your shoulders are sore from the HANS pushing down on them, your back and legs are tired from shifting, your arms are tired from turning the wheel without the help of power steering, and your hair smells like exhaust. But the joy stays with you. I believe we drive so we can experience that joy. It is no accident motorsport is a passion. It is no wonder we forget the danger as we pursue that perfect spiritual experience in the car. It is nothing short of prayer.

Mid Ohio, 2013

Mid Ohio, 2013