Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The tragedy of Justin Wilson

Sometimes disaster can befall people in most unlikely ways. The odds against getting hit by a lightning bolt are astronomical -- but it happens. People can do everything "right" but still wind up dead. Not long ago, a biker pal of mine was stopped at a red light and BAM, he was rear-ended by a pick-up truck. Right or wrong, 4-wheelers will win those battles every time. The lady driving the truck went to jail, but she'll get out eventually. My friend is never coming back. We've even heard of folks sitting in their own houses, only to be swallowed up by a sink-hole into the depths of the earth. There are many other such weird examples but, in short, sometimes very strange ways can pop up to spell one's demise. Passenger aircraft are 99.9999% safe, but they occasionally crash. Sometimes they kill still other people sitting in their own houses on the ground. What a way to go. One minute a person is watching TV, and the next a 747 crashes into their residence and ends their life. Highly unlikely -- but it happens. As they say, the Man upstairs can move in mysterious ways.

On the other hand, there are professions where the participants know full well serious risks can be involved. The military. Firefighters. Stunt men/women. Hookers and drug dealers. Everything might be going along just hunky-dory, but if they run into the wrong situation, it could spell disaster. One never knows.

Such would seem to be the tragic case of Justin Wilson. The 37 year old Brit was cruising along at an Indy car race in Pocono when the unthinkable happened. A car in front of him spun out of control and hit the wall. Well, OK, that happens all the time in Indy racing. When these cars crash, they are designed and expected to scatter debris. It's all about the car absorbing the impact while keeping the driver safe. Cars can be replaced. Drivers not so much.

But it just so happened one of those high-speed pieces of debris found its way into Justin Wilson's cockpit, striking him in the head. Sure, Wilson was wearing the full face helmet and the head of an Indy driver presents a very small target. For the most part, they are laying down in their cars. It was a one in a million shot. But it happened.

Wilson was immediately rendered unconcious and his car eventually crashed itself, but he never knew it. After finally being extricated and air-lifted to a local hospital, Wilson is now in a coma and remains in critical condition.

Of course, every time something like this happens, there are many that clamor for more safety procedures to be put in place. Perhaps Indy cars should have entirely closed cockpits, they say. A "bubble", much like unlimited hydroplane racing adopted a few years back. Back in the day, the crazies piloting the 3000 HP speedboats were in deep trouble when they hit a little turbulence and flipped. The mortality rate even amongst the best was quite high. Let's just say a lot of them didn't live long enough to see their kids grow up. Closed cockpits were definitely a good and long overdue idea.

There's been a lot of good safety innovations over the years in various sports. Facemasks for football players seem to have worked out well. Helmets for hockey players. Can you believe goalies once played without face masks? There's he-man, and then there's the death wish/stupid thing. A difference. Padded walls on most race tracks was a terrific idea to absorb the inevitable impacts that will occur. Baseball players now have to wear their batting helmets while running the basepathes. That seems overly wimpy, but at least they got away from their infernal crotch-scratching. Perhaps they've made improvements in their cups as well. Ahem.

If he recovers, it would be interesting to hear Wilson's own opinion on closed cockpits. And that's where the decision should lie. Not with the ever-sensationalizing media, nor with the suits that oversee sports and make the rules.

Let the people who know best make the call. The drivers. If they want closed cockpits -- fine. If not -- let them race on like they always have. They know bad stuff can happen but they do it anyway for fame, fortune, and mostly because it's in their DNA. They WANT to do it.

Consider Alex Zanardi, another former Indy car racer. A few years back, an on-track incident left his car sideways on the track. He was helpless. A trailing car wound up sawing Zanardi's in half. Stuff like this can happen at 200 MPH. Problem was, Zanardi's legs wound up in one half of the car while the rest of his body was in the other. Miraculously, he survived.

Like the Justin Wilson incident, it was a one in a million tragic scenario that just happened to play itself out in the worst possible way.

Nevertheless, here's wishing Justin Wilson godspeed and may he not only fully recover, but return to doing what he loves.  

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