Krupa: Risk-taking was part of Justin Wilson's life

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Justin Wilson

Detroit – When a racer dies, we begin to question why we do it.

From cheering them on, to publishing and broadcasting their performances, to financing their pursuit, to designing their cars, to performing the mechanics, to driving, we contribute to a sport of great challenge, supreme talent and enormous thrill.

Justin Wilson plainly knew why he did what he did.

His career was marked by a keen desire to stay in open-wheel racing, where some racers find the performance of the cars unparalleled.

When it racing goes so tragically wrong, it always changes things.

There will be safety improvements. There always are, even when disaster has not yet struck, and long before the sort of tragedy that unfolded live on TV and at the Pocono Raceway, where one car slamming into a wall created a debris field, and a nosecone flung high into the air landed in the cockpit of Wilson's car, as he raced.

We must wonder why we do it, given more evidence of the astonishingly risky sport, if only because we are human.

But Wilson knew. And his pursuit is only a portion of the solace to which his survivors cling, amid mourning likely so deep as to exhaust explanation.

Wilson persisted, prevailed

Stefan Wilson, Justin's brother who is a racer in both the IndyCar Series and Indy Lights, tweeted, "He lived for this sport, he loved it. The only comfort I feel is that he lived a life he loved! RIP mate, I'll chuffing miss you."

Justin Wilson faced great trials, as many racers do.

A decade ago, he achieved rides with two manufacturers in Formula One. But like many at that elite level, he failed to make it a long career.

Indianapolis-style racing beckoned and a ride this year with Andretti Autosport was acclaimed throughout much of racing as justice served.

Wilson had persisted and prevailed.

Career paths easily suggested it was time for the 37-year-old British racer to move on to sports cars, and he was already past the window where other styles of motorsport might have offered a point of departure.

But then he would not have been an open-wheel racer, and he was thrilled by the new opportunity, even if it was limited, in 2015.

"Right now it's just two races," he said in May, when he first signed. "But it's two of the best races and the Indy 500 is the best race. It's the one race that if you win, it can change your career. If you win that, it changes everything.

"That's the race every driver wants to win, and Michael's team is always competitive there. I just thought this is my best chance of winning."

Solace for a brother does not always extend to the wider "racing family," to which so many are referring as they react to Wilson's death.

Some will take solace in the review of safety procedures that has already begun and the airing of an issue that looms large, not only because of its implications in the tragedy at hand, but because it is long perceived as a signature element of open-wheel racing – the open cockpit.

'They calculate their risks'

Brad Keselowski, the Michigan-born NASCAR champ, was not alone in the wake of the deadly incident at Pocono in expressing his point of view that the IndyCar Series may have reached the point of necessity in requiring the cockpit shields and enclosures that have already been designed and, in some cases, developed.

More will be heard about it, amid the memorials for Wilson, which will extend through the upcoming races, the twin final, at Sonoma, where the championship will be decided.

Solace is often fleeting, after the death of a racer.

In 1964, Eddie Sachs died on the second lap of the Indianapolis 500 in similarly misfortunate circumstances. Unable to see ahead, when he encountered the immediate area of a fiery crash, he collided headlong into another car.

As his death was later announced to the fans, track radio announcer, Sid Collins, provided an impromptu eulogy, recalled across the decades in times of grief.

Among the words he spoke are many that plainly apply to the fallen Wilson, and should now include a mention of women racers, including these:

"Some men try to conquer life in a number of ways," he said. "These days of our outer space attempts some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death and they calculate their risks.

"And with talking with them over the years I think we know their inner thoughts in regards to racing. They take it as part of living.

"A race driver who leaves this earth mentally when he straps himself into the cockpit to try what for him is the biggest conquest he can make (are) aware of the odds and Eddie Sachs played the odds. He was serious and frivolous ...

"These boys on the race track ask no quarter and they give none. If they succeed they're a hero and if they fail, they tried. And it was Eddie's desire and will to try with everything he had, which he always did.

"So the only healthy way perhaps we can approach the tragedy of the loss of a friend like Eddie Sachs is to know that he would have wanted us to face it as he did. As it has happened, not as we wish it would have happened. It is God's will I'm sure and we must accept that.

"We are all speeding toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour, the only difference is we don't know how to speed faster and Eddie Sachs did. So since death has a thousand or more doors, Eddie Sachs exits this earth in a race car. Knowing Eddie I assume that's the way he would have wanted it. Byron said, 'Whom the gods love die young.'"