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Why We Race: Reflections From a Driver After Dan Wheldon's Death

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DAN WHELDON RACING
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In the wake of the recent tragedy in which the racing world lost one of our champions, IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, my inbox has been flooded with messages from people I know personally -- as well as others I don't -- asking me to reconsider ever setting foot in a race car again. I am touched by the thoughts of concern and my rational self understands the argument against ever strapping into a race car again -- whether it's the popular stock car or the faster, sleeker, more dangerous open wheel cars (I've driven both in my career). But like most of the other competitors in my sport, while the death of a fellow driver makes us reflect on our life choices, I know that for most, including myself -- it will not make us hang up our helmets.

In the past ten years I've been racing, like all drivers, I've been in a few situations on track where it could have turned serious. In my first open wheel race at Kentucky Motor Speedway in 2007, I was running 6th and moving up fast. I had passed five cars in a lap and half, my race car was dialed in and I was so confident in my car that I went three wide on the outside coming out of turn four to pass two cars at once. I was on a mission. It was my first open wheel race and I was on my way to a top five finish with 20 laps to go. I had quickly run down the two cars in front of me who were running in 4th and 5th place. But I could see a wreck coming, and a lap or two before the driver in front of me touched wheels with the car racing him on his outside, I told my spotter, IndyCar driver Jaques Lazier, that I thought the cars in front of me were going to wreck. They were making me uneasy and I wanted to get past them as quickly as possible. I wanted to go three wide and get past both of them as I had done earlier in the race with ease, but instead I had to back off because there was another car on my outside preventing me from moving up and completing the pass. Sure enough, my instincts were correct and just a lap or two later, the two cars in front of me touched wheels causing the car directly in front of me to cut a tire. At speeds over 200 mph, when something like that happens, you don't have much time to react. So I moved up the track to avoid hitting the car with the blown tire, but thinking there was still a car to my outside, I moved up slowly and unfortunately it wasn't fast enough. My left front tire clipped the right rear of the slowed car in front of me and I flew into the wall. In the split second I had to think, as the wall was coming towards me, I only had time to say to myself, "Uh oh, this is gonna hurt" before impact. I hit the wall so hard that my motor had a crack all the way through it. Physically I walked away with nothing more than a big blue bruise on my elbow, but it was my broken heart that hurt the most.

The following month, I got back into my Indy Lights car to race at Chicagoland Speedway. Forty three laps into the race, Wade Cunningham (who sadly was also involved in the wreck in Las Vegas that claimed Dan Wheldon's life) had contact with another car and flipped end over end in front of me. I remember seeing one of Wade's wheels disconnect from its tether, which is supposed to keep the wheels attached to his race car during an accident. The wheel broke away from the wreckage and as it was flying through the air towards me, I thought to myself "Man, if that wheel lands on my head, this is going to be it." Of course that didn't happen and I was fine and finished the race. Yet again, I had escaped a possible tragedy without a scratch.

After Dan Wheldon's death -- a two time Indianapolis 500 champion at age 33 with a wife and two young boys under the age of three, many of his fellow drivers were openly sobbing at the track. The danger we all face every day had become real and had stolen someone we all loved. So why do we do it? Why do we keep on racing? How can the trivial pursuit of winning a race be worth paying the ultimate price? It's a difficult thing to articulate but I am going to try.

I believe that for every driver, racing is an integral part of our soul... if it wasn't, we wouldn't be out there. We all know and understand the risk -- after all, we have all watched as our idols have perished behind the wheel -- names like Senna, Earnhardt, and now Wheldon. But there's something inside of us that loves the sport enough to take what can occasionally turn out to be a fatal risk. For myself, there is no feeling in the world like being at speed in a race car, barreling into a corner inches away from my competitors. I scuba dive, skydive, and bungee jump -- but the thrill I feel when I am racing I have found nowhere else. Driving race cars is a high speed, high risk chess game where the slightest mistake can result in paying with your life. But it is precisely that risk -- that danger -- which makes our sport so exciting. It's what makes spectators sit on the edge of their seat. It's the reason racing is the number one spectator sport in America. It's the reason why our hearts pump as we flip the switch to start our engines and feel the rumble of the massive horsepower below us. It is knowing that we are putting it all on the line -- everything we know in this world -- to win a race that each of us, deep in our souls, believes we can win. And like a gambler with his money, we go all in with our lives -- we play for keeps. Perhaps racing isn't so different from having a gambling addiction, except for the fact that if you lose -- you lose big and the stakes are so, so much higher.

And while on days like this when we lose a driver who is among the best and brightest in our sport far too soon, it may seem irrational for us to continue to race -- but we are, in our heart of hearts, one thing: drivers. The pain of the loss of Dan Wheldon and the other champions of our sport will endure but we will still race again. Because racing is not only what we love, but it is who we are. Every race driver knows they could die at what is equivalent to our office -- on the track. But we also know that if that rare situation were to happen to us, we would be dying doing something we love. What kind of life would we be living if we did not do something we love just because of our fear? Every mountain climber, every airline pilot, every skydiver, every race car driver understands this: that with our chosen professions there lies the off chance that someday the unthinkable could happen to us. Our equipment could fail or we could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- and we accept that as part of doing what we do, of being who we are. Wrecks are going to happen, and on the rare occasion, they will be fatal. But in the words of one of my first driving coaches, Andy Hillenburg, "You know it's going to happen at some point, but just keep telling yourself, it's not going to happen on this lap. And when it does happen, it will happen so fast that it will all be over before you can even think about it."

Dan Wheldon charmed everyone in the racing world with his smile. I hope that his wife Susie and their two children have the strength to get through what I can only imagine is an incredible, unbearable pain. I will never forget Dan or the other champions before him that have lost their lives in our sport. And the next time I hear the track announcer say "Drivers, start your engines," I will remember each of them as I strap on my helmet and tighten my safety belts.

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