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Avoidable Contact #60: To make cars better, we’ll need to make them much worse
If you won the $700 million Powerball or whatever it's up to at the moment, what would you do? I know what I'd do—I would quit racing cars. Isn't it obvious why? No? Do you think that perhaps you would start racing cars if you won that kind of money, even though you absolutely would not? Alright, bear with me for a moment.
I've been racing wheel-to-wheel for a decade and a half. Spent twice the price of my house doing it, in exchange for a shelf of five-dollar trophies and two short appearances on cable television. I've seen the LifeFlight arrive at my sessions a half-dozen times, watched a fellow competitor die a hundred feet away from me, stood in silence while another one died in the helicopter. In 2015 I got turned by an out-of-control E30 BMW then center-punched at 80+ mph by that same car. The video shows my helmet bouncing between rollcage bars at the carefree speed of a dog's wagging tail. The year after, I exited the uphill Esses at Watkins Glen backwards and missed a deadly impact by maybe 18 inches. I'm moving to an open-cockpit car for this season, which will no doubt end in some sort of tears.
Why do it? The answer is simple: Like many men of my largely-forgotten generation and oft-reviled background, I have almost nothing to lose.
I think caution, or lack thereof, is partly genetic. Much as I love cars, I never would have raced them under circumstances where people die, and I never drove dangerously. But I did ride a bicycle across the country, in 1975, because in my estimation, it was not a very risky thing to do. But before I set off, I bought Bell hard-shelled bicycle helmet serial #7022. After riding across the country, as someone who expected to put tens of thousands of miles on bicycles--much of that in the city (and did), I wrote an article on bicycle safety, figuring that knowledge would help keep me safe.
People in my family did not run risks, either. My parents put seat belts in the '57 Chevy in '60 or '61, and we had the first shoulder belts in the back seat of a Peugeot station wagon in France, in '65, after my father, an academic economist, solved the topological problem of how to install them for the guys at the factory, when we picked up the car. Neither my brother's nor my sister's kids engaged in risky behavior.