The name Justin Wilson has made NASCAR, Bristol, the Chase, all of stock car competition irrelevant these past few days during a time when everyone involved with racing is in mourning. During lap 179 of Sunday’s 200-lap IndyCar race at Pocono, race leader Sage Karam wrecked into the wall and tore his racecar to pieces.
One of those sharp metal objects, a nosecone, got launched into the air and crossed the track at the exact moment Wilson was coming off turn 1. Hitting Wilson right in the head, tragedy ensued as the driver lost consciousness, never regained it and was a passenger as his car slammed hard into Pocono’s inside wall.
The record will show Wilson died of a traumatic brain injury, the second IndyCar driver to do so within the last four years. He joins Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon in racing heaven; Wheldon died in the 2011 Las Vegas season finale when, during a multi-car wreck his head made contact with the track’s outside wall at speed. Both men were British transplants, beloved within the open-wheel world and two great spokesmen for a series that has needed a sense of leadership and direction within a shrinking paddock.
IndyCar may not be my beat; NASCAR has been, part- or full-time for nearly a decade now. But the series in which a racer dies is always inconsequential for those who live, breathe, and experience the sport. The nightmare of these tragedies for all of us will remain as painfully fresh as the first time we went through it. NFL players like Jordy Nelson tear their ACL; the painful reality for our sport is role models face injuries that tear them from this world, often in the prime of their lives.
It also puts racing in a difficult position when placed within a generation of Americans far removed from the horrors of risking death, whether through wartime or primitive working environments. It’s a difficult concept for them to accept in a sport they turn to for entertainment.
Problem is, the scientific limits drivers push makes elimination of that risk impossible; the cat-and-mouse game of safety will go on for years. NASCAR has done the best at it, managing to avoid serious injuries and death in their top three series since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic ending at Daytona in February 2001.
But rest assured, as much as I don’t like to write the sentence we will be dealing with tragedy again someday. Kyle Busch’s injury this season was a stark reminder, followed up by Austin Dillon’s July wreck in which the car almost completely disintegrated and sent small pieces of debris through the catchfence at Daytona. That Dillon walked away was a remarkable testament to NASCAR’s innovation but also a bit of good fortune. Just ask any driver within that garage and they’ll tell you about the relief of watching him walk away from an incident where all feared the worst, both for Dillon and fans in the stands.
The reality of the risk, accepted by the crowd perhaps in the 1950s seems to hit harder in 2015. Thousands of people saw their first IndyCar race at Pocono Sunday, including children looking to find a hero. Mom and Dad will now need to explain instead to their young child what grown-up moment they witnessed, what they hope they’ll never see again as a paying customer. Will that horror prevent them from coming to a track in the future? I don’t know. The NFL’s concussion problem hasn’t slowed them down but in that case, death isn’t instant. It isn’t sitting in front of you while you’re supposed to keep cheering during the fourth quarter.
What we do understand is that, like with the Earnhardt tragedy in NASCAR, great changes will come as a result of Wilson’s accident. IndyCar drivers have always been more difficult to protect because they’re out in the open, driving without a windshield or any type of “debris protector” beyond a helmet. Two deaths in four years will almost certainly get open-wheel racing over the hump of tradition and into the new reality of “closed-cockpit” competition. It’s bound to make racing safer, at least for a time. But the risks are still there. Just like we keep finding places without SAFER Barriers in NASCAR, there will be another crash where the speed of fire, a mechanical breakdown in the closed cockpit endangers the safety of the driver. The cat wants so badly to catch the mouse but the mouse, in the form of scientific realities, will always find a way to escape.
It’s why these athletes deserve the highest levels of respect, engaging in an activity where we often forget their worst-case scenario until it’s sitting front and center on the national news.
This case seems particularly unfair considering Wilson was beloved within the IndyCar paddock. Known as the “Gentle Giant,” he possessed an even-keeled temperament, a dry sense of humor and an incredible talent that was never fully realized. Leaving behind a wife and two young daughters, the 37-year-old was in the middle of a part-time ride at Andretti Autosport that seemed one step away from the “A” quality, full-time opportunity he craved before hanging up the helmet for good.
Instead, we weep for Wilson and work hard to ensure it never happens again. We pray, we hope, but we can never guarantee – the rough reality that keeps racing in a unique but sometimes awkward place in today’s pantheon of major sports.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Justin Wilson photo by Getty Images