Jason Leffler's tragic death, suffered in a wreck driving a Sprint Car last night at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, opens up many questions and thoughts. Most thoughts head to his family and son Charlie, whose grief right now remains unimaginable. But tragedies like this bring up difficult questions for drivers: How do you get back in the car and race after an incident like this?
NASCAR racer Parker Kligerman offered an interesting thought in the wake of Leffler's passing:
4 Race car drivers immortality is a way of life. 1 day we find 1 of us 2 be mortal is a day in which we struggle 2 comprehend @JasonLeffler
— Parker Kligerman (@pkligerman) June 13, 2013
Having spent 18 of my 28 years on this planet racing cars, and being involved in the Las Vegas IndyCar accident that took the life of Dan Wheldon, the question of getting back in the car has been a real-life scenario for me too. Kligerman's thoughts paint a vivid image of the mentality a driver must possess to compete at the highest level of motorsport.
I was often asked by spectators, do you not get scared? The answer was, and is, always simple. "No."
What makes racers appear fearless is actually an ability to disengage the "what if" part of the brain. It's not real bravery, at least most of the time, it's more a case of mental naivety, genuinely believing that an accident of this nature could not happen to them. And while that may seem like stupidity to many of the population who wonder "how can you not think something bad might happen when you're driving at over 200 mph?" to the driver, it's an essential part of the job.
If you let fear seep in, you can't drive to the absolute limit. You can't push to the edge. Racers have to be willing to risk it all, even if deep down they don't believe that "risk" could ever truly become reality.
Of course, digging deeper, every driver occasionally has to deal with the fact that risk remains very real. Last night's tragedy proved it, and many racers will be waking up this morning with the same confused feeling Kligerman described in his tweet.
My experience is that as the hours and days pass, your brain, again, develops this thick layer sheltering you from "what if." It separates the danger from the job, allowing you to jump back in the car like it's business as usual. Without that ability, one could never become a successful racecar driver. But times like these remind us all that racing can be a very cruel sport, and that no matter how hard we may try to pretend, no one is immortal.