The Risk of Racing

By |2018-04-02T20:11:14+00:00May 2nd, 2014|The Blog|0 Comments

The first time I witnessed someone die on a race track, I was eight years old.

It was 1992. My dad was racing an ARCA car at a really fast track in Salem, Indiana. I was playing in the infield while the race was going on, and then it happened. A driver got into a big wreck, and his car was cut in half. I knew it was big, and I was like, “Wow, did you see that?” Then I went back to playing.

On the way home, I remember my mom and dad talking, and I overheard them saying that they were really sad that a guy had gotten killed.

“Who got killed?” I asked. The driver who wrecked, they said. (I would never learn his name.)

I had chills for the rest of the ride. I started to think about my dad. How did he have the stomach to keep racing after something like that happened? What if something like that happened to him? What would I do?

That stuck with me for the next seven or eight years. Whenever my dad drove, I always got nervous watching him race, kind of sick to my stomach.

MERELY GAMES

Not long ago, Dustin Long, a senior writer for Motor Racing Network, asked me about the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death (which is this week), and what I could recall from the day he died. As I started to answer it, my mind was flooded with different thoughts, too many to share during a media session.

On May 1, 1994 — the day that Ayrton died — I was 10 years old. My dad was a Formula One fan. He used to wake up every Sunday to watch the races, and he’d wake my brother, Brian, and me up to watch with him. That day, I didn’t wake up, but my brother did, and I remember hearing that Ayrton had passed away.

The news broke pretty quickly. It was the morning before a NASCAR race at Talladega, pretty much where we are in the season right now. I remember Dale Earnhardt getting out of his car after winning the race, and saying that his thoughts and prayers were with Ayrton’s family. This week, coincidentally — on April 29th — would have been Dale’s 63rd birthday.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” We can debate what is or isn’t a sport, but as a race car driver, there’s a lot of truth to that quote. When we’re behind the wheel, we’re risking death at virtually every moment. That separates racing from most other sports.

Fans ask me all the time, “How do you overcome the fear of death as a driver?”

It’s a great question. The answer lies in my own experiences of death and loss. It also has a lot to do with what drives me to race.

Those experiences began with one of my childhood heroes.

CHRIS GEHRKE

When I was seven, there was an ARCA driver named Chris Gehrke. He was kind of the young, up-and-coming guy, and being a kid, I liked the paint scheme on his car, so naturally, I became a fan of his. He raced against my dad a lot, and they raced pretty clean. Everything was great.

Back then, a lot of sports weren’t on live TV, but this 1991 ARCA race at Talladega was. I was watching from home, and I remember how cool it was to see my dad racing live.

Late in the race, Chris flipped down the front stretch, throwing his car into the air. I watched as my dad drove underneath him, and just barely missed him. When Chris’ car landed and stopped, somebody hit him at around 170 to 180 mph. It spun his car like a bottle top. I’ll never forget that. But again, being a young kid, I didn’t think anything more of it, and watched the rest of the race.

On a Tuesday or Wednesday night of that week, I was watching Speed World on USPAN with Dave Despain. Right at the very end of the show, they put Chris’s face on the screen, put up whatever his birth date was, put up a date from 1991, and then added a dash mark in between. I wasn’t a very bright kid at that age, but I was bright enough to know what that was.

Right when that flashed across the screen, my parents rushed me off. “Hey, it’s bath time! Bedtime!” They knew I was a fan of his, and I think they thought that if they rushed me out of the room, I wouldn’t figure out what had just happened. But I picked up on it right away. I remember kind of screaming and crying at my parents in the bathtub, and asking, “Why didn’t you tell me he had died? I can’t believe you wouldn’t tell me!”

Years later, when I first started competing, I chose the No. 19 — Chris’ number — as a tribute to him. It’s also the number we use on one of my two BKR trucks now.

ADAM PETTY

Today, for me, the risk of death is a known risk, a risk-versus-reward proposition. I’m afforded many benefits in life that others are not, and it’s something that I’m very thankful for. To receive them, I have to put my life on the line. I’ve had a few big wrecks, and obviously, those affect you. But I’ve always viewed getting back in the car after a wreck and not missing a beat as a personal challenge.

That hasn’t always been the case.

In 2000, around the time I started getting opportunities to drive, there was a racer named Adam Petty. He was few years older than me. He was also the son of Kyle Petty, and grandson of Richard Petty. Adam was the guy that I wanted to be. Adam had, to me at that time, everything I ever wanted. He was really young, he had a fully sponsored ride, he had a family behind him. He was the next big thing, hands down. And he was running the Busch series — what we now called the Nationwide — at the time.

It was a Friday, and I had just got out of school and I was gonna go race a factory stock car that night. But it was raining and the races got cancelled, so I went to the shop to work the car, and just relax.

When I got there, I remember my sister walking out and going, “Wow, that’s a real shame about what happened to Adam.” I had been in school, so I hadn’t heard anything. He had been killed in practice at New Hampshire that day.

He was who I wanted to be, me in my own eyes four or five years in the future.

It shook me. It shook the whole sport. It was the first time I’d ever thought, “Well, that could happen to me.”

THE RISK

So why race?

The answer is different for every driver.

It shook me. It shook the whole sport. It was the first time I’d ever thought, “Well, that could happen to me.”

My family went through a really low stretch around 2006. We had a race team — a truck team — and it went out of business around that time. We went into bankruptcy. We had to sell everything off. It was really tough on my mom and dad — really, the whole family. So that was one tough blow.

The other was losing my grandmother, Roberta Keselowski.

We were really close. When I was in school and my family traveled for races, I stayed with her a lot. She was almost a primary caretaker in that way. One of the worst parts about losing her was that she passed away from an illness that could have been dealt with if we’d had money for healthcare. But everybody in my family was broke. So rather than to go through all the healthcare bills, and running up debt that our family couldn’t pay — only to pass away later — my grandmother chose a path that led to her dying after a short time.

It was kind of an eye-opener for me as it pertains to death, and it made me think later about the risks you take in racing.

I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be really good at anything else that I did in my life. And I decided that I would rather go all out, risk everything, and try to make it than have to go through a situation like we had with my grandmother again.

WHAT DRIVES ME

In the end, how I deal with risk and why I race have a lot to do with each other.

As I’ve gotten older and accomplished some of my goals on the track, including winning a championship, the things that motivate me have changed a bit. Money isn’t what drives me to race. It’s a tremendous benefit, but I’ve been fortunate enough financially that if I stopped racing tomorrow, I’d be fine. I’m not racing for stats. Telling people 20 years from now that I have more top fives and laps led than anyone in history doesn’t interest me. And I’m not racing for fame.

For me, it’s about three things.

I race because I’m a competitor. I have an inner passion to be the best. Every morning, I wake up excited to be a driver.

I race for the thrill and excitement it gives the fans. I’m still a fan, and I love this sport.

And most importantly, I race for my team.

From the time I was a kid, my life has been lived on a race track. The way I see it, my team is my family. And when we win, and I see my team and their family members taken care of, there’s an extreme sense of honor for me in that.

I race for my team more than anything else. I race for the people around me.

They are what life — and living — are all about.

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