“Gentlemen, start your coffins.”
Fortunately, motorsports safety has come a long ways since the late, great Jim Murray penned those words before the 1966 Indianapolis 500.
But the danger that is inherent to the sport, and the unspoken thrill that it brings to some fans — there’s a reason “Furious 7” is the No. 1 movie in the world this week — will never disappear.
“It’s always part of it, even if some of us try to act as if it’s not,” said Graham Rahal, who will be driving the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Louisiana. “But then everything you do in life is risk and reward. For sure, though, in our case, there’s always a lot of risk. And if you make the wrong mistake, you’ll pay the ultimate sacrifice.”
Rahal, son of three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, the principal owner of Graham’s team, has been luckier than most in his 12-year career. Broken ribs going back to his karting days are the worst injuries he has suffered, although a wrist injury suffered two years ago still gives him a jolt of pain when he hits a bump the wrong way.
In fact, Rahal is less worried about himself than he is his fiancée, drag racer Courtney Force.
“It really makes me nervous to watch her race, because, when her engine blows up, things are then totally out of control of the driver,” he said. “But then again, the drag racers think we’re crazier than they are, and we both think the motorcycle guys going 200 miles an hour with a leg hanging out are totally nuts.”
Safety has increased dramatically over the past 20 years as the cockpit became more secure and the open wheels that made Indy cars so often lock up have been shielded.
In this century, there have been only three driver fatalities in IndyCar, the last of which was Dan Wheldon’s death in a 15-car crash in Las Vegas in 2011. Wheldon’s accident was the only death that came during a race.
“At least it’s not like it was back in the ’50s and ’60s, when drivers lost friends every week,” said driver Scott Dixon, a pallbearer at Wheldon’s funeral. “And I don’t think we really worry so much about getting hurt, at least during a race. Of course, you calculate the risk factor when you’re trying to pass someone. But it’s the risk to the car, not yourself.”
Dixon has suffered a broken ankle, wrist, hand and pelvis in separate accidents. But he said it never gave him pause about what he does.
“You might think about it for a few minutes the next time out,” he said. “But then you say, ‘The hell with it’ and get back out there.”
That’s because, according to three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, nothing beats the rush of racing.
“Everybody knows the human body wasn’t meant to travel 200 miles per hour,” he said. “So there’s obviously danger, which happens to be something I kind of enjoy.
“If you don’t want to take the risk, then maybe you’d be better off finding something else to do.