Redefining Unacceptable Risk

This week, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died one day after being struck in the helmet by a piece of debris. He was coming around turn 1 at Pocono Raceway after race leader Sage Karam lost control of his car and slammed into the outside wall. A large piece of Karam’s car broke off and tumbled down the track, bouncing and flipping over. Its final bounce put it into the path of Wilson’s car and he drove right into it. The debris caromed off of Wilson’s head with such force that it flew up into the air at twice the height of the catch fence on the outside of the track. It was a violent collision, the equivalent weight of two or three bowling balls bouncing off of Wilson’s helmet at a speed approaching 200 miles per hour (until data is released, it’s hard to tell as cars were slowing in response to Karam’s accident). Wilson lost consciousness immediately and never regained it.

Last year at the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Formula One driver Jules Bianchi’s car began aquaplaning at the Dunlop Curve and went off, colliding with a mobile crane at the side of the track that was busy recovering another car that had gone off a lap earlier. In the words of the FIA’s accident report, “Bianchi’s helmet struck the sloping underside of the crane. The magnitude of the blow and the glancing nature of it caused massive head deceleration and angular acceleration, leading to his severe injuries.” Bianchi lost consciousness at impact and died nine months later, having never reawakened.

That is two fatal accidents in open-wheeled racing in the past two seasons. One in Formula One, the premiere worldwide open-wheeled racing league, and the other in IndyCar, where an average lap speed on large oval tracks regularly tops 235 miles per hour.

A feature of both of these leagues, and in all other open-wheeled leagues, is that the driver’s helmet is exposed. There is some protection to the sides of the head, and drivers sit very low in the cockpit, barely able to see the tops of the front wheels, but drivers are not encased entirely by roll cages and bodywork, like in stock, touring, or prototype car series. Because of this inherent vulnerability on the part of the driver, and in response to Bianchi’s and Wilson’s deaths, there have been calls for all leagues up and down the spectrum of open-wheeled racing to adopt closed cockpits as a long overdue, basic safety measure.

A closed cockpit would not have saved Bianchi’s life. As the FIA stated further in its conclusions, “It is not feasible to mitigate the injuries Bianchi suffered by either enclosing the driver’s cockpit, or fitting skirts to the crane. Neither approach is practical due to the very large forces involved in the accident between a 700kg car striking a 6500kg crane at a speed of 126kph. There is simply insufficient impact structure on a F1 car to absorb the energy of such an impact without either destroying the driver’s survival cell, or generating non-survivable decelerations.” In other words, Bianchi’s car stopped so quickly that the forces applied to his brain were fatal, regardless of any impact to his helmet. But, a closed cockpit would have prevented the debris from striking Wilson’s helmet, and he would be alive today. Adopting closed cockpits would seem to be an easy decision to make. But, as in many things, what seems easy at first is fraught with complications that come into focus once the immediacy of emotion has died down.

These, however, are engineering problems. Whatever questions arise, over weight, performance, cost, unintended consequences, etc., will be hashed out by people with very big brains. What this article is concerned with is the idea of unacceptable risk.

Racing is a dangerous sport. Decades past, it was not unusual for there to be many grisly on-track deaths in any given year. In the 1950s and 1960s, Scuderia Ferrari alone at times was losing one or two drivers a year in the various disciplines in which it competed. These were deaths where decapitation and/or dismemberment were not unusual. Driving in the 1957 Mille Miglia in Italy, Alfonso de Portago crashed his Ferrari. The impact was so violent, and safety standards of the time so lax, that not only was de Portago killed, severed at the waist by the hood of the car, but so was his co-driver and nine spectators who had been standing on the side of the road. This was racing in the time before seatbelts, enclosed helmets, and crash barriers — when it was understood that drivers were taking their lives into their own hands, and, as it turned out, that of spectators.

It took generations, but racing is vastly safer than it once was, to the point where Bianchi was the first death in Formula One in twenty years, a once unthinkable standard of safety, and any death in any racing league is unusual. Safety standards are so high that it would seem any death is the result of a low-probability accident, one which engineers had not even considered could occur. Indeed, Wilson’s accident was odd only in that it resulted from a clear vulnerability in the car: the small space where the helmet is exposed.

So, racing is safer, but it is not 100% safe. In order for that to happen, drivers would have to be removed from the car and operate them remotely. Don’t scoff. We have the technology to do so right now, and I’m sure there are some engineers that would salivate at the thought of designing a car that doesn’t need to account for a driver being onboard.

How safe should racing become? Should it embrace this 100% ideal and move towards removing the driver from the car? Were that to happen, would the sport be changed to the extent that it is no longer interesting? This is a real concern for fans and for those who participate. There is a quote, variously attributed to Barnaby Conrad or Ernest Hemingway that reads, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are games.”

That quote speaks to the heart of motor racing. Most sports test an athlete’s skill, determination, conditioning, strength, killer instinct, intangibles — all the different things that separate a champion from the merely proficient. Racing does this, but also tests a driver’s willingness to risk life and limb. Every sport has its dangers. On every pitch, a pitcher in baseball risks a comebacker that could strike their head. On every play, a football player risks an impact that could sever his spine. But these are highly unlikely outcomes. Meanwhile, at every corner, a racing driver risks catastrophic failure, and it is not an unlikely outcome. Only their skill and bravery keeps it from happening.

Drivers keep their vehicles on the edge of the car’s performance. A little bit too much throttle, a little off the line on entry, maybe too much turn in, and a car will spin off, immediately putting the driver in danger of death. What separates racing drivers from us average drivers is that they can sense the limits of the car and approach those limits much more closely than we are willing to. How close they approach the edge, that difference between making the corner and losing it completely — their willingness to risk their lives to go quickly — that is a measure of bravery that does not exist in any other popular sport. No one is willing to die for a touchdown, but every driver knows that the next corner could be their last. No racing fan, and no driver, wants that danger to disappear from the sport.

This isn’t about wanting to see drivers crash, a conclusion those unfamiliar with motor racing could reach. Rather, it’s about celebrating those who have the stones to take that corner, over and over again, and survive. It’s a visceral need wrapped in modern technology. Athletes have been called the gladiators of the modern age. The comparison is apt. And with greater risk comes greater adoration.

As modern society continues to evolve, however, it is becoming more and more risk averse when it comes to personal injury. Making the world around us completely safe has become a moral imperative, it seems. The list of things that are worth dying for is shrinking. God and country are still firmly entrenched, but sports has been kicked off the list. As well it should be. Sports, inherently, do not matter. They are an economic force and an entertainment juggernaut. But, if one were to think about it, every sporting contest is an exhibition, even the ones that show up in the standings. No soccer match has decided a war, no race has finalized trade negotiations. Whenever the Yankees win a World Series, I don’t get a check in the mail just because I live in New York (even though I should, considering I helped pay for their damn stadium, but that’s a topic for another day).

Sports do not matter, so no one should have to die while competing in them. But...

I think modern morality is moving so swiftly towards risk aversion that it is losing nuance. Simply saying ‘death is unacceptable’ reduces risk to a black and white state that is unrepresentative of the real world. Life is the most precious thing that each of us possess. When it ends, it is the one thing that none of us can ever regain. There are no do-overs, no opportunities to go back and alter the outcome. As society continues to embrace empathy, a good thing, by the way, a side effect is that the protective umbrella of empathy continues to spread to embrace more things. The very idea that something with a risk of death could be fun then becomes an immoral stance to hold. This may be true. There is something of blood sport in all athletic endeavors, and each fan and participant is left to reconcile their consciences with their morals.

I would like there to never be another death in motor racing. But, I don’t see how that can be possible while the sport remains a test of bravery. The fact of the matter is, risking life and limb has substantial rewards. It really does make a person feel more alive. In the stands and at home, we fans can live vicariously through the actions of these people who have the requisite combination of skill and courage that the average person does not. Maybe we have the skill, but not the courage. Maybe it’s the other way around, or neither. Either way, we cannot do what they do and that is why we celebrate them. As for the drivers themselves, to listen to a driver speak about what it is like to race a car around a track is to listen to a person describe a level of sublime satisfaction that many of us only dream of approaching. I think it would be tragic to take that away from the world in the pursuit of absolute safety. Motor racing can be safer, but at a certain point, risk aversion in sports, and in life, has to cease.