|Indycar driver Justin Wilson - Photo by Stephen Terrell|
Participants know this. Devoted fans know this. It is the cruel truth of the sport. And no matter how much safety is improved -- no matter how new designs, materials and technology make it possible for drivers to survive the seeming unsurvivable -- the sport can bite. And it can bite again.
And it does so without concern as to who are the good guys, who is quick to laugh, who always has a smile and a comment for waiting fans, or maybe most disturbingly of all, who has incredible racing skill. In 2011, it happened to Dan Wheldon, a 2-time Indy 500 champion and perhaps the sports most popular driver both with fans and fellow drivers.
Racing fans care, and care deeply, about the men and women who risk their lives at speed. And when something happens, like happened Sunday to driver Justin Wilson near the end of the Pocono 500 Indycar race, it just saps something from you.
Sage Karem, the brash and talented young gun driving for Chip Ganassi, was leading the race. Exiting turn 1 at 210 miles per hour, his car snapped around and hit almost head on into the outside "safer barrier" wall. Even by Indycar standards, it was a particularly violent crash at an sharp angle. You could tell from the race announcers' voices that they were concerned for Karem's well-being.
It took a while for Karem to get out of the car. He had to sit for a few minutes before walking with a bit of a limp to the waiting ambulance. But clearly he was not in danger.
But there was a second car involved. Justin Wilson's car never made contact with Karem, but he crashed into the inside wall and came to a stop. Casually watching, it seemed maybe he ran over some debris that may have damaged his tires and suspension, not an unusual occurrence in all forms of racing. Emergency crews were quickly on the scene, and it became apparent from their actions that this was not routine -- that something more serious was involved.
On replays, it became obvious that the nosecone from Karem's car had flown into Wilson's path. He had no time to react. Traveling at over 200 mph, Wilson hit the large piece of bodywork with direct impact in the cockpit, likely with Wilson's helmet.
It was a fluke. A devastating happenstance.
The force of this impact is evident in the video. After hitting Wilson, the nosecone flew high into the air, perhaps 100 feet above the track. Such are the physics and forces of physical bodies colliding at more than 100 yards per second.
Wilson was airlifted to a nearby hospital in a coma and in critical condition with a severe head injury. It has happened to other drivers. James Hinchcliff was hit with a flying piece off of Justin Wilson's car at the innaugual Grand Prix of Indianapolis and missed qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 due to a concussion. Grand Prix driver Phillipe Massa was hit in the helmet by a spring dropped from the car in front of him at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was knocked unconscious. Both recovered and raced again.
But Wilson collided with a bigger piece of debris at a much higher speed. So as Indianapolis Star racing reporter Curt Cavin wrote, "Now we wait."
I met Justin Wilson in 2014 at the annual Burger Bash on the Friday night before the Indianapolis 500. He is well over 6 feet tall, much taller than any other Indycar driver. He has a warm smile and is quick to laugh. He has an easy engaging way with fans, enhanced by the charm of his British accent -- a throwback to those who remember Graham Hill charming Indycar fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But make no mistake. He is an incredibly gifted driver with a burning desire to win -- something he has done seven times in Indycars. When he joined the Andretti racing team at mid-season this year, the Andretti stable of drivers was suffering through perhaps its worst Indycar seasons. But Wilson joined the team, lending his expertise on car setup, and the fortunes turned. Almost overnight, the Andretti team was again competitive. Wilson finished second at Mid-Ohio and former Indy 500 winner & Indycar champion Ryan Hunter-Raey, who was having a miserable season, suddenly won two races, including Sunday at Pocono.
So now the Indycar drivers and crews will pack up and head west to Sonoma, California for the season ending race. It is what racers have done since the earliest days of the sport. It is what racers will always do. But that does not mean their thoughts and hearts, and those of Indycar fans, will not remain in a Pennsylvania hospital room.
Note: Hours after this was originally posted, it was announced that Justin Wilson died from his injuries. Thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends.