Wilson's death a sad reminder of racing reality

— -- I didn't know Justin Wilson. I saw him race. Maybe even quoted him in a story along the way. But I didn't know him. I couldn't tell you whether he was as great a human being as everyone says he was. But I respect the people who have said it, and so I believe it.

Even though I didn't know Wilson, I still feel profound sadness with an underlying anger. I'm amazed -- and puzzled in some ways -- why so many who didn't know Wilson feel overcome with emotion over his death Monday resulting from an accident in the IndyCar Series race Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

Those who work in the racing industry and the fans of the sport obviously know someone can die every time they fire the engines. They feel a deep connection to anyone who straps into a vehicle to fulfill their own competitive urges and provide entertainment to their fans.

And yet, even though I have worked in racing for 25 years and know crashes and death will happen, I personally want to chuck the computer against the wall today. I wonder when I watch an event knowing someone can get killed, where does that event rank on the meter between incredible and ghoulishly perverse?

I tell myself that racing enhances life for the participants and their fans, that their time on this earth would not be as special, not nearly as fulfilling if athletes didn't get to drive cars at 200 miles an hour. I try to believe that life isn't a hike along a road but a roller coaster filled with highs and lows, and I want to live life strapped in the seat and enjoying the thrill of the ride rather than wandering around, drinking a beer and watching others stare down their fears.

Sometimes bad things happen. Freak accidents -- and many believe that Wilson's death resulted from a freak accident -- happen. But logic says virtually anything is preventable if someone will look hard enough for answers. Logic smacks in the face of those who have the comforting faith that when it's your time to go, your number has been called and there's no use worrying about it.

But it has to be OK to be angry, right? Right now, with the emotion of the moment so raw, nothing makes sense. Why did the nose piece come off and fly like that? Did his head have to be exposed?

Why. Did. This. Happen?

Is anyone listening to those shouting to make the sport safer? Every time Ryan Newman blasts restrictor-plate racing, is he doing it because he hates the fact that he crashed or because he knows drivers can only tempt fate so many times? At some point, someone won't cheat serious injury, or death, and then changes will occur.

The sadder truth in the racing world is sometimes even a tragedy won't result in change. Sometimes it takes a certain person to die. Dale Earnhardt died less than a year after three other drivers -- Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper -- died of similar injuries. Improvements in driver safety didn't come until after Earnhardt.

That is one of the most sobering facts of death in racing. Will sanctioning bodies make the right changes with the correct analysis so they don't make things worse? Will they overcome any stubbornness or excuses from those who don't like change while also not giving into the temptation of outside pressures and to appease the ill-informed?

People who work in racing must know they likely will have to write about or work with people who will crash and die. It sounds morbid, but take it from someone who has written these stories time after time: It is reality.

People often ask if I wish I covered racing back in its early years. The answer is always: No. I don't enjoy writing obituaries.

Unfortunately, I had to help write an obituary this week. About a racer. About someone so well-liked in the garage, someone who earned every single start he got and every single sponsor he could muster. He did what he loved, and we'll take some solace in that.

Not many people can do what they love for a living. Justin Wilson did. And many like him will continue to race this weekend.

They will start races with a prerace prayer, one that asks for the safety of all at the track. Those prayers often seem more heartfelt than one before a city commission meeting. Everyone at the track knows someone could die. Everyone there knows that racing can only be so safe.

No one should feel surprised that a race car driver died this week. We all should be prepared for it. We've been through it before. We'll go through it again. We'll enjoy the thrill of the race. We'll ignore the fact that we might leave the track with deep sadness.

And we'll wonder why things happen, even though we know they will.