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Fuel & Tires: Accident proves racing comes at a cost

By Dave von Falkenstein
August 23, 2015

I love racing. I love the speed, I love the intensity. Sometimes, that love comes with a cost. When you are a fan of cars racing on tracks that feed that kind of excitement, it's only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt.

Unfortunately, during Sunday's Verizon IndyCar ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, a piece of debris from Sage Karam's crash near the end of the race became nearly fatal. The debris hit Andretti Autosport driver Justin Wilson in the helmet, resulting in life-threatening injuries.

Wilson was hit by the nosecone of Karam's car after Karam hit the wall. As of Sunday night, Wilson was in a coma and in critical condition at a Pennsylvania hospital.

I, as a race fan, don't ever want to see something like this happen. While there are people that go races primarily to see the wrecks, I outgrew that years ago. Anytime there is a wreck, you just want the driver to get out of the car and walk away.

I remember watching on TV the Marlboro 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The race was the CART season finale on Oct. 31, 1999. My dad and I were excited because the title fight was down to Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti, and this was the endgame.

On lap 9, popular Canadian driver Greg Moore was involved in a horrific crash where his car came across the infield grass off of turn one and hit the concrete barrier top-side first. Moore was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.

To this day, that is the moment that haunts me most about being a racing fan. It was a macabre display of what the speeds race cars, especially IndyCars, reach can do to the human being piloting them. I almost wanted to quit watching racing, but when you're a fan, you're a fan. It's in your blood, and the excitement outweighs the risk when can you watch these modern-day gladiators battle it out on a race track.

Long before that, my dad was at the Indianapolis 500 in 1964 when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a fiery crash on lap two. When my dad saw the massive fireball, he went up to see what happened. It was a gruesome site. He never wants to see anything like that again, he says. I would concur.

In 2011, my dad and I were watching the IndyCar finale at Las Vegas Speedway when another horrendous accident happened in which former Indy 500 and series champion Dan Wheldon was killed when his car hit the catch fence on lap 11.

At that time, I just chalked up the accident to a perfect storm that contributed to the crash that killed Wheldon. I wasn't wrong, but it still didn't feel right to be able to callously “write that one off” as an accident that wouldn't have happened if all of the stars hadn't aligned correctly.

Wilson's accident is just another example of what can happen when the drivers that we love take it to the limit. It's nobody's fault, just a one-in-a-million shot that Wilson got hit where he did with the piece of debris that ultimately put him in a coma.

Wilson's story is interesting, mainly because he spent 2003 driving in Formula One and the fact he's 6'4”. Not many race car drivers are over 5'9”, so he's an anomaly in that aspect.

In 2004, he joined the Champ Car World Series (then running in competition to the IndyCar Series) and had four wins before joining Newman/Haas Racing in 2008 when the Champ Car and IRL series merged and had a win that year.

He's been driving for Andretti Autosport on a part-time basis this season, but should be driving full-time purely based on his skill and background. However, in auto racing, unless you can bring a lot of money to the table, you won't get where you should be. Wilson shouldn't have to cower to those demands, but it is what it is.

Ironically, Wilson's teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay won Sunday, his second win of the season while Graham Rahal, second in points, was taken out by a ridiculous maneuver by back marker Tristan Vautier.

I have no answers as to how these kind of things can be prevented. They probably never can be. It'd just be nice to not have to worry about a driver like Wilson fighting for his life while Hunter-Reay should be celebrating.

God willing, Wilson will recover from his injuries and be back in a race car soon. He has a wife and two daughters, so his recovery is something every auto racing fan could cheer for.