It had been raining a couple of minutes into the race when a prototype spun at the exit of Tertre Rouge a couple hundred yards from where I was standing. Moments later I saw the Robin's Egg Blue of a Gulf-liveried Aston Martin flash sideways, hit the safety barrier, and ricochet back onto the track. What was in my periphery—I'd been looking further toward the exit of the corner— immediately snapped into focus. There the car sat, motionless, without its driver's door.
No driver emerged, and I saw the crowd straining to get a clearer view from the hill where they stood on the inside of the corner. The corner workers were out and the track quickly went to a full course caution. I decided to head toward the crowd to see what I could see.
By the time I reached the inside of the track, the driver was no longer in the car and the ambulance had left. The workers cleaned up the debris. It would be a long caution. Before I left Tertre Rouge, I took this photo:
I walked to the Esses where a British man asked me if I knew the reason for the caution. I told him what had happened, but we were both curious as to why the caution was lasting so long. It wasn't till I returned to Paris on Sunday night that I read an email from a friend saying how sad it was that Allan Simonsen had died. The loudspeakers at the track were hard to hear, and my French isn't that good either, so I had somehow managed to not receive the news for the remaining 23+ hours I was at Le Mans. I don't know if I actively blocked out such a horrible possibility while I was at the track, but the moment I read the email I was overcome by what I'd seen.
When you're ten years old, meeting your hero is akin to winning the greatest sporting event you could imagine. In 1990, I met Ayrton Senna in Montreal before the Canadian Grand Prix. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement. Four years later when I learned of his death at Imola, I didn't think it was possible. As a child I'd yet to have much exposure to death, much less a death that occurred on a race track— the arena in which my dreams took place. I was sad, but it wasn't quite real to me, much like my having met him years before.
This week I read Sam Smith's column in Road & Track in which the author described a vintage Formula Vee race he was in where one of the competitors was fatally injured in a wreck. This wasn't the big stage of Le Mans or Formula One— it was the same level as any number of amateur racing events that take place across the world on any given weekend, and Smith's words were as real and clear to me as seeing that broken Aston through the lens of my camera last June.
My love of cars was apparent as soon as I could point to anything with four wheels. As soon as I could afford it, I built my Spec Miata. I've enjoyed SCCA club racing ever since. My resume will never look like Senna's, or even my sports car heroes like Randy Pobst or Andy Wallace, but I know that my life would never be the same if I could not pursue that feeling of competing and pushing the envelope on my talents as a driver. When I was younger I used to talk up that misappropriated Hemingway quote about auto racing and bullfighting being the only real sports, but as I've grown older I think that's a bit of misplaced machismo. Yes, it seems like it wasn't so long ago that death—frequent death—was an accepted part of our sport. But through the efforts of people like Jackie Stewart, Senna, and others to improve safety and the wellbeing of drivers, it's clear that passion, not machismo, drives racers to compete.
Not a lot of racers talk about the inherent catastrophic possibilities in our sport. You see moments in racing movies that suggest that if we think about it too much, we'll lose our "edge," that which pushes us to the absolute limit. Maybe there's some truth to that. Every one of us who puts a helmet on and heads out on the track makes some sort of risk calculation, whether conscious or unconscious. If we get consumed by the chances, real or perceived, then it's probably time to take off the helmet, and there's not one thing wrong with that.
I am a racer. I've had wrecks, some amazing saves, a bit of frustration, and enough successes to excite me and push me further. Yes, you could say we are thrill-seekers, but I don't know a single racer who has a death wish. I am aware of the dark side of our sport, and I'll do all I can to ensure my safety. 2013 has been a sad, hard year for many in racing. We as racers must not ignore the danger inherent in our sport, and we must do everything we can to be safe while continuing to pursue our passion to its fullest.