Hours before Sunday's IndyCar race, I sat in the rear of a two-seat IndyCar piloted by legendary driver Mario Andretti. As we whipped around Pocono Raceway's "Tricky Triangle" reaching speeds of up to 185 mph — about 40 mph slower than the pros get them up to — I felt my body push and pull against the roller-coaster G forces that make it difficult just keeping your head straight.
We did just two laps, and we were out there alone. But doing it 500 times, packed in a crowd of 25 other machines that are just inches apart, is a much hairier experience.
A few hours after my ride safely ended, veteran driver Justin Wilson, 37, was fatally injured on the same stretch of asphalt when he was hit in the head by debris that broke off from another car in front of him and crashed into the wall exiting turn 1. He died Monday at an Allentown, Pa., hospital.
"This is a monumentally sad day for IndyCar and the motor sports community as a whole," said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent of the driving series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "As we know, the racing industry is one big family, and our efforts moving forward will be focused on rallying around Justin's family to ensure they get the support they need during this unbelievably difficult time." There was no word of driver safety in Miles's statement, and next weekend's season finale at Sonoma Raceway will go on as scheduled.
It was a freak accident, but many are surprised it doesn't happen more often. Unlike NASCAR drivers, who have a car surrounding them for protection, IndyCar drivers blast around the track with their heads jutting out of an open cockpit. They are exposed to all kinds of danger not limited to crashing into the wall or another car at more than 200 mph.
Wilson, who was working his way back as a regular competitor after a disappointing 2014, was among the most respected and well-liked drivers in the series.
"What Justin's gone through over the past couple years, how hard he worked to get back into the car this season, and the opportunity that he had with Andretti [Autosport], I think he exemplified the reason we all love doing this," said CFH Racing co-owner and driver Ed Carpenter, who walked away from a bad crash during a practice run earlier this year.
"He was doing what he loved to do, what we all love to do, and why we'll all be back competing in his honor in the near future."
Wilson represented his fellow drivers when officials weighed safety measures after Dan Wheldon's death in 2011. The Indianapolis 500 winner died of head trauma when his car went into the catch fence in Las Vegas. With new IndyCar construction still being considered four years after that crash, debate about the dangers of open cockpits continues.
Last year another driver, James Hinchcliffe, suffered a concussion when a piece of Wilson's car similarly broke off and struck him in the head.
But when NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, his death brought about safety changes and the introduction of the HANS device, a head stabilizing collar that all drivers are now required to wear.
Wilson's teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay won the race at Pocono after the accident, and in his post-race comments he called for revolutionary safety measures that could transform the sport. While traditionalists have shunned canopies, much like older hockey players were against wearing helmets, there's a movement to improve driver safety with a new device.
"Maybe in the future we can work toward something that resembles a canopy," Hunter-Reay said. "Something that can give us a little bit of protection and still keep the tradition of the sport. Just to be an innocent bystander like that and get hit in the head with a nose cone is a scary thought."
Auto racing is a sport that fans are drawn to because of the power of the machines, the daring of the drivers, and the potential for high-speed crashes. Before every race, drivers sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans on their way out to the track. Those with families kiss their wives and kids again and again before getting behind the wheel in a scene that plays out before every race including the tragic run at Pocono, because you never know.
Hanging over every race is the potential for death. It's part of the sport of auto racing. It's why some drivers and crew members attend mass on Sunday morning. It is a sport where so many things can go wrong, where pit crew members are told "be ready for anything" on their headsets before the cars pull in. They are all aware of the dangers. They accept them the way any athlete knows they can suffer an injury. But racing is different because there are no minor injuries when you are traveling 220 mph around a loop surrounded by steel and concrete, seated in a speeding bullet powered by explosive gasoline.
IndyCars are machines capable of reaching top speeds in a matter of seconds. The only thing more amazing than their ability to hug the road and corner on rails at such high speeds is that the track isn't littered with more carnage.
As we zipped around that triangular oval with nothing but a helmet between my face and the wall, it was impossible not to think about everything that could go wrong out there. Just a few hours later, something did go wrong. And perhaps that tragedy can shape the future of racing safety to prevent it from happening again.