I’ve entered turn one at Indy, foot flat to the floor, at over 230 mph. I’ve also exited said turn in one piece most every time. That is, every time bar one – in which I crashed at 230 mph and spent three nights in a hospital bed coughing up blood with a concussion that rivaled that of being smacked in the head by a Cave Troll, using André the Giant as a mallet. To put it differently, it hurt like hell.
Prior to the new millennium, that wasn’t the case. Drivers knew that of the select few taking the start line at the beginning of the season, multiple drivers would likely be killed by the time the final checkered flag waved.
It wasn’t “if” you would get hurt behind the wheel, it was “when” – and would you survive to tell the tale? The fact that Jackie Stewart and Stirling Moss, or A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser, enjoyed such a long, storied career is almost miraculous.
So how did those drivers push to the limit knowing that the odds of their survival were terrifyingly slim?
Bobby Unser told me that it’s easy to look back at that era and think they were all barking mad. But in reality, “we just didn’t know any better.” He points out that practically impenetrable carbon fiber tubs didn’t exist back then; a bendy aluminum tube chassis was the best technology in the business.
“We didn’t know bias-ply tires weren’t as good as radials,” the three time Indy 500 champion continued, “because we didn’t have radials back then. We had the best that was available at the time.” Unser says that provided drivers with a sliver comfort, much like Safer Barriers do for today's crop of talent.
Part of that reasoning makes sense; in 30 years time, we may look back at the open cockpit cars of today and think that a driver exposing their head to the elements is crazy. But despite the argument of “not knowing any better,” I can’t help but wonder how you mentally race – week in week out – facing such a vast degree of danger.
I’ve driven vintage Indy cars from 1966, 1972 and 1978, and all three were truly intoxicating – and yet the lack of safety was evident. They were biblically fast, especially in the big-winged decade of the '70s. I recently drove a ’78 Lightning Indy car, the first race car Budweiser ever sponsored, at Road America.
The speed was intense, and I was intimately aware that if a part fails, or something goes wrong, I’d be in trouble. You’re effectively riding a massive tank of gasoline on four wheels, and the body panels feel like thin pieces of cardboard with paint slathered on them.
I’m convinced racers from that era were of a different breed. If you talk to guys like Mario Andretti today, they’re hardened when it comes to tragedy. That toughness derives from decades of losing colleagues and friends – something that’s unheard of in 2014.
I was involved in the 15 car wreck that took the life of Dan Wheldon back in 2011, and that moment of utter shock is something I’ll never forget. It was a type of sadness I’d never experienced; a loss that brought the drivers together in a moment that only those 33 of us racing that day will ever truly understand. It’s a bond that unites us forever.
We get back in the car after experiencing a tragedy like that because we tell ourselves it’s a fluke, the “perfect storm,” an accident so rare we won’t witness anything like it again: “It won’t happen to us,” we say.
But what about back in an era when tragic accidents might occur multiple times per weekend? Did they really believe that it wouldn't happen to them?
Unser thinks that today’s racers are no less brave than those from his era, “they just know better than we did.” The expectation for drivers today is different; we expect to come home on a Sunday evening, so when tragedy strikes, we’re not prepared to deal with it.
Back then, you were always prepared – always ready. Like a soldier on the front line, it’s simply the risk you take. Only you’re not doing it for your country or for a greater cause, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re an adrenaline junkie, risking it all for that encompassing rush. You toughen yourself up to the odds and go in fists flailing – knowing that what will be, will be.
The late Gilles Villeneuve once said, “I have no fear of a crash. No fear of that.” If today’s racers were driving that very Ferrari Villeneuve died aboard in 1982, I doubt they’d speak to the same tune. It requires a different type of driver to be successful in the 21st Century; sheer bravery takes a back seat to one’s technical know-how. That doesn’t make champions of one era better than another. It merely shows how the sport has evolved.
How racers did what they did during a period when the Reaper was ever present still, to some degree, baffles me – despite Unser’s rationalization. I’d like to say I’d don my helmet, suppress the fear and give it everything I had, but in truth, I don’t know if I would.
Guys like Bobby Unser are a rarity. They’re heroes, driving machines that are now clearly deeply unsafe. Perhaps that’s why we refer to those decades as the “glory years”? Or maybe, like Unser suggests, today’s racers are just as crazy as ever. We simply convince ourselves that we’re not, still singing the same old song – “it won’t happen to me.”