Recently I lost a teammate and friend, Jessi Combs, in a tragic accident in an attempt to break a land speed record in Oregon. In messages expressing condolences and compassion, as well as reading through endless numbers of news articles, I began to notice a repetitive comment, one I’ve seen used many times over the years, and yes, I must admit, I’ve even used it myself. “She died doing what she loved.”
As I thought about this all-too-common phrase, I began to feel ashamed for having used it. It was apparent to me that those using it meant well, but after doing a deep dive within my soul, I no longer feel it’s an acceptable response. I realize such a comment is not intended to make a death somehow seem acceptable, and that its intent is to make us all feel as if the loss is in somehow OK, but the truth is, it’s not OK.
The truth is nobody wants to die doing what they love, be it skydiving, fishing, auto racing, knitting, or anything for that matter. They want to keep on doing it until one day they find themselves looking at old photographs, videos, newspaper clippings and magazines with buddies or family and reminiscing what once was: the close calls, overcoming adversity, the excitement, the thrills, friendships, achievements and victories.
Sadly, limits are sometimes pushed too far. Unfortunate things happen. Things break, or calculations are misinterpreted, and the result sometimes can be catastrophic or even fatal, but we don’t want to die doing what we love. We die wishing every single minute, hoping and praying it won’t happen to us. I know for a fact that Jessi was full of life and had no intention of dying. Dying was not in her vocabulary. She simply died trying to set a land speed record.
Is there any good that results from such fatalities? Simply put, yes. Those who die racing don’t just leave behind a legacy of their passion. Ultimately, their loss motivates the rest of us to develop safer devices or the means to prevent such tragedy from ever reoccurring.
Three-time Formula 1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart spoke about the drivers he saw die. Stewart himself witnessed 57 racing deaths between 1963 and 1973, leading him to calculate that if a driver competed for five years, he had a two-out-of-three chance of a crash killing him. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s just a short 10-year period. Now ask yourself how long have you been racing. If you say something stupid like, “Yeah but I’m not racing Formula 1,” you need to rethink what it is that you’re putting at risk. Without the proper safety devices/equipment, hitting a wall at only 100 miles per hour, or even just 60 miles per hour, can be just as fatal as the speeds found in Formula 1.
Yes, racing is dangerous by nature, and cars keep getting faster. For decades, innovations like HANS devices, safer barriers, advancements in better designs of roll-cages, fire suppression systems and more, have made our sport considerably safer. We can and should thank all who lost their lives, which ultimately led to the development of safer equipment and a safer sport.
NASA goes to great lengths to ensure that everyone at the track, be it in a car, in the paddock, pits or even in the stands will not be in harm’s way. Every year, stricter rules and tech inspections are enforced to ensure that everyone involved within our sport goes home loving what we do: living. We don’t die doing what we love. We die making sure others will not.