2001. The first NASCAR race I ever watched. The first race I can remember watching at all in years. Michael Waltrip wins the Dayton 500 as Dale Earnhart is involved in a wreck. Darrell Waltrip: “I guess Dale’s all right isn’t he?”
2006. Working in the basement and stumble across Indy Car racing. Paul Dana is killed. The start and finish of my memory.
2006. Christiano da Matta hits a deer during a Champ Car test at Road America. He is able to race again for the first time in 2008.
2007. Watching live as David Reutimann hits the wall at California. Reutimann’s car is on fire, and they are showing the in-car camera, and it appears that Reutimann’s been knocked unconscious, or worse, slumped in his seat unmoving as his spotter begs him to respond. Darrell Waltrip: “Got the wind knocked out of him”.
This is the first time I can remember being genuinely scared watching a wreck and its aftermath.
me: “Car racing is dangerous, but it has never been safer. Injuries happen, sure, but it’s clear the major threat is gone.”
2009. Henry Surtees is struck in the head by a tire from another competitor’s car. He died from his injuries the next day. He was 18 years old. The tire that killed hit broke the tether that is supposed to prevent such an accident.
Henry Surtees was the son of John Surtees, a racing legend, the only man ever to win both the motorcycle world championship (350cc: 1958-1960, 500cc: 1956, 1958-1960) and the Formula One World Driver Championship (1964). John Surtees competed in some of the least safe vehicles, during one of the deadliest times of motor sport’s history, one some of the cruelest circuits. He did all of that and survived. His 18 year old son, competing in the safest era in racing history, was killed when a safety tether, designed to prevent exactly that accident, failed.
2009. Six days after Henry Surtees is killed. During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a spring flies off of Rubens Barrichello’s car. In a sequence that would look fake in a movie, the spring bounces and hits Felipe Massa in the head. Felipe is out of racing for the year but makes an incredible recovery to drive again the next year.
Felipe Massa has become a joke in Formula One now, but he wasn’t always. He was a few turns away from winning the WDC in 2008. He is a genuinely nice man and exhibited more graciousness in his 2008 WDC defeat than any human has a right to muster in those circumstances. Watching this accident live was one of the first times I had to turn off a wreck.
me: “I agree that motorcycle riding seems dangerous, but the reality doesn’t seem that bad. It almost seems like crashing off a bike is more likely to result in a minor injury, but less likely to result in a major one. They’re kitted-out pretty well with the exception of the neck. The only real danger seems to be being hit by another rider, which doesn’t seem to happen terribly often”.
2010. I’m driving home from the MotoGP race at Indy with my nephew. My wife texts me to let me know that there had been a fatality at the track that day. It took me a while to piece it together, but Peter Lenz had been killed in a support race at the track that morning. I hadn’t even gotten to the track yet when it happened, and there was no acknowledgement of it at the track that I was aware of. Peter Lenz was 13 years old when he was killed. He died by falling and being struck by another rider, an 11 year old. Peter Lenz was a rising talent in US motorcycle racing.
I turned to my nephew and said “Hey, guess what? A rider was killed at the track today! Wild huh?” My nephew was 12. Later I realized how I must have sounded. I called my brother to apologize and let him know he might want to broach the subject before my words could do too much permanent mental harm.
2010. One race meeting later, Moto2 rider Shoya Tomizawa was killed after falling and being struck by following riders.
I didn’t watch this race, and I’m ashamed to say that at that point in my nascent motorcycle racing fandom I didn’t know who Tomizawa was. I only really noted this fatality as an odd counterpoint to Lenz’s death at the previous meeting, and the odd echoes of the Surtees/Massa weekends the previous summer. I now know that Tomizawa won the first Moto2 race and was a viewed as a potential future star. I shouldn’t need any of that to care about his death.
2011. Before the start of the 2011 Formula One season, Robert Kubica is involved in a horrendous rally accident. There’s still a lot of speculation about the exact nature of the injuries sustained, but it is indisputable that a guardrail was hit at a bad angle and entered the passenger compartment of the vehicle. Immediately fans began discussing how soon he would be able to return. Then talk turned to whether he would ever return. They talk turned to whether we would ever regain complete motor control.
2011. 3 racers are killed at the Isle of Man TT: Bill Currie, Kevin Morgan, and Derek Brien.
Its my first year following the TT. These fatalities go by so quickly and so matter-of-factly that I barely noticed. I had to go look up these names, I just remember that they died, I couldn’t even remember who they were.
2011. Coming in from the garage to turn the in-progress Las Vegas Indy Car race on and seeing the red flag, knowing something was wrong. Waiting for the commentary to come around to tell me who it was. Dan Wheldon. Seeing the replay. It’s bad, but it’s not that bad, right? Right guys? He’s going to be fine, they’re always fine. But he wasn’t.
Dan Wheldon was the first driver I ever truly mourned, and I don’t really know why he was different, but he was.
2011. The weekend following Dan Wheldon’s death. Sitting at the breakfast table with my daughters, chatting with them, eating, looking at twitter on my phone. Marco Simoncelli was killed at a race while I slept.
Perhaps unfairly, his death has turned me into a big Simoncelli fan, but I wasn’t when he was alive. I reveled in his potential, but he seemed to squander it in so many races, too aggressive, hurting himself (bad enough) and others also (unthinkable). Like Wheldon though, Simoncelli was made of personality, and his loss is felt acutely.
The deaths of Wheldon and Simoncelli weighed heavier than any of the others. They came close to the end of the racing seasons, and I withdrew from the rest of the races. I thought I was able to move on.
2012. Jorge Boero suffers a heart attack after a fall in the Dakar Rally and dies.
2012. 17 year old Oscar McIntyre died in a national series support race in Australia.
2012. Nick Hayman is involved in a crash at the Sears Point AMA round, suffering severe head trauma and multiple broken bones. His friends “believe it’s only a matter of time before he wakes up.”
2012. Mark Buckley is killed in one of the North West 200 races.
me: “can someone tell me if I should be enjoying this or not?”
I love racing. My love for racing has only grown over this time. But perhaps because of that increased love, each of these incidents hurts a little bit more. I would never, ever advocate the end, or limitation, of racing, but perhaps I just need to be done with it for a while…