Craig Murto: Why do racers race, fans buy tickets?

The motorsports world is still stunned by the death of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson.

It’s difficult to collect one’s thoughts at times like these. Sometimes, when faced with the harsh realities of motorsports, you wonder why any of us – racers, spectators, media – would do this at all.

Wilson, 37, driving for Michael Andretti, was struck in the helmet Sunday by the nose cone off of Sage Karam’s crashed car in a 500-mile race at Pocono, Pennsylvania, Raceway. Wilson never regained consciousness and died the next day at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown.

It was the third fatality in three weeks on Pennsylvania racetracks, as drivers at local facilities were killed the two previous weeks in a row. But Wilson’s accident occurred on live television.

Winner of four IndyCar races in his career, Wilson also won the Daytona 24 and was the FIA F3000 champion in 2001. In 2003 the Minardi F1 team designed a car for Wilson, who at 6-foot-4 remains the tallest driver ever to compete in F1.

Justin Wilson was married and had two young daughters. By all accounts, he was one of the nicest people at any racetrack. As one person noted, when he met Justin Wilson he was taken back by how nice he was.

“He didn’t act like someone who raced in Formula One.”

The F1 community mourned the loss of Wilson. The FIA went to work to test new cockpit designs to offer drivers more protection. Some suggest a canopy such as those used in Top Fuel Dragster competition, though the FIA suggested that canopies could deflect debris into spectators, creating more problems than they solve. And canopies could make driver extrication in an emergency more difficult.

Open-cockpit racing will always have an added element of danger due to its very nature; if a driver is exposed he’s at more risk. The drivers who partake in this form of racing accept those risks.

More than one driver has noted the time they felt their children were old enough to be given the “I may not come home from work one day” talk. Like law enforcement, firefighters, military members and others, race drivers and their families are well aware of the risk they take every time they do their job.

So why do we do it? Why do racers race? Why do fans buy tickets to watch?

For those of us who are addicted to the sport and don’t get behind the wheel, we don’t watch to see anybody get hurt. We watch to see brave and skilled drivers beat the odds. It would be a lie to say there isn’t excitement in knowing that we’re watching something dangerous. But nobody wants to see a bad crash at a racetrack anymore than people hope to see the tightrope walker without a net slip and fall.

A couple decades ago it seemed commonplace to lose top drivers every year. The obligatory “he died doing what he loved” comments were made and the sport moved on.

These days we move on, but not until we take a close look at safety. Deaths in racing are not as easily accepted, and that’s a good thing. Every racing tragedy is an opportunity to learn and prevent future tragedy.

In Justin Wilson’s case, his tragedy saved at least six lives through his donated organs.

IndyCar racer Tony Kanaan posted on Facebook, “Why do we do this? Because we love it, don’t want to be anywhere else but a race car. We will keep your legacy my friend. Racers race.”

In the movie “Grand Prix,” the character played by James Garner (who also raced) was asked why he risked his life in a race car. He responded that to master something that had the potential to bring him close to death made him feel more alive.

Eric Jones, a Northern Virginia resident who races Legends Cars and is a co-host on the In the Pits radio and Internet broadcasts, is always seeking ways to improve his personal safety in the race car. But he knows all too well the addictive nature of the sport.

“It’s not like anything else on the face of the Earth,” he said when asked why he races. “Why do people strap on a parachute and jump out of airplanes? There’s a rush they get out of it. There’s no better feeling in the world than to drive into a turn, inches away from another car, at the limits of your physical and mental abilities and the mechanical abilities of the car. Nothing else compares to that.”