10.16.11: “It takes more cojones to be a sportsman when death is a closer party to the game”

“’All life is sorrowful’ is the first Buddhist saying, and so it is.  It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow – loss, loss, loss.  You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way.” – Joseph Campbell


From the moment a driver straps into his seat, he and his fans know that he might die or be horribly injured during the race.  They surrender to this risk.  When considering the threat of death, many drivers adopt the Calvinist idea of a person’s “time to go.”  When the Lord calls a driver home, whether he is Adam Petty at 19 in a race car, Lee Petty at 80-plus in a hospital, or Sonny Sayre at 33 on a dirt track, he will be ready, and he and his family will accept the Lord’s decision.  At the same time, however, a driver relies on his skill and control during a race: his fate is in his hands as he negotiates turns or threads through traffic.  The race is this tension between control and giving over that control to the larger entity of fate or God.  If he gets caught in another driver’s bad luck or bad driving, or if his car fails mechanically, then his resulting early departure from competition is labeled “one of them racin’ deals.”  Fate has dealt his a bum hand this time, and so he has to try again next week.  Death, then, is the final “racin’ deal,” as much a part of racing as a flat tire or an accident.

Drivers manage to avoid thinking about death while accepting its inevitability.  In every race, a driver knows he might die, but he cannot allow himself to fear death if he wants to race.  And all he wants to do is race.  So he has to construct a belief system (or an ego) in which he does not fear death.  His idea might be as simple as “it can’t happen to me,” or he might believe that he can actually outrun, out-dodge, or out-maneuver death.  Drivers will say that they know the risks, embrace them, and drive anyway “because they have to.”  Some even shrug off the notion of dying, preferring to concentrate instead on the exhilaration of living that they feel behind the wheel.

Unless a man faces death, he cannot truly claim to be alive, as Soren Kierkegaard holds: “the thought of death gives the earnest person the right momentum in life and the right goal toward which he directs his momentum.”[1]  In auto racing, that momentum is literal.  The goal of the race is the finish line: the finish line of life is Heaven.  The race itself, though – the life – is the glory, and “the willingness to risk a trip through the lonesome valley in the pursuit of excellence is one of the glories of [auto racing].”[2]  For drivers and their fans, living within a hair’s breadth of death is the only way they want to live.  More than a “way of life, … it is Life.”[3]


“Most drivers are not very complicated, and they don’t have a lot of complicated philosophical theories … A lot of them believe in predestination, that when it’s my time, I’ll go.” – Lowe’s Motor Speedway President M. A. “Humpy” Wheeler[4]


Death is inevitable.  Death allows for new life – spring must follow winter and, according to the Book of Ecclesiastes, life’s meaning comes from these cycles.[5]  The promise of eternal life might be at the root of evangelical Protestantism’s appeal, then, since “nothing frightens … mortals more than” this inevitable death.[6]  Race car drivers cannot fear death, though.  They must fear nothing, or else they will not be able to leave their garages for the race.  Drivers look death in the face on a regular basis, but they are as alive as can be, living and working at the zenith of their capabilities.  They follow the suggestion of Ecclesiastes that “the chief aim of life – given the inevitability of death – is to enjoy life … while still living right.”[7]  Fans subscribe to this notion as well, rejoicing in the celebration of life, the race, that results from drivers who do not deny death, but defy death.[8]  The threat of death makes these drivers live all the more boldly and fully.  Many fans look forward to dramatic crashes on the track, but most fans dread the terrifying smash-ups.  The threat of a wreck, not the wreck itself, is what keeps audiences on the edges of their seats.


There are few, if any, religious traditions, ‘great’ or ‘little,’ in which the proposition that life hurts is not strenuously affirmed, and in some cases it is virtually glorified” [Geertz 103].


Many religions, not just Christianity, understand that sorrow and pain are integral to life’s pattern, and many religions honor or glorify life’s difficulties.[9]  The Bible asks in Job, “not why do the righteous suffer, but how will the righteous respond to their suffering?”[10]  Will they despair and give up, will their faith flag, or will they endure and become even stronger?  The Book of Job further teaches that “genuine faith weathers even the most difficult of storms.”[11]  Events will test a person’s faith and mettle, from Richard Petty’s flat tire on pit road to the loss of his grandson Adam in a car wreck during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway, or from Paul Sides’s broken axle in the last points of a race season to the loss of a good friend in a race.  It is a testament to the faith of these competitors and their loved ones that they persevere.  NASCAR Winston Cup rookie Casey Mears, himself the third generation of a respected racing family, confirms: “I absolutely love to get in a race car.  Some things other people like to do are safe, but the fact that I absolutely love what I’m doing justifies, in my mind, the good and the bad.”[12]

Death in the line of duty is woven into the fabric of racing.  In games, says Hemingway, “we replace the avoidance of death by the avoidance of defeat … it takes more cojones to be a sportsman when death is a closer party to the game” [22].  Perhaps you are at your most alive, the closest you can get to God, when you are on that thin edge between life and death.

Race car drivers love driving more than anything, and so to them, “the dying” has to be “part of the living.”[13]  Kierkegaard holds that “death in earnest gives life force as nothing else does,” and so it is no surprise that fans returned to the stands and drivers returned to their cars less than a week after Sonny Sayre died in Tunica in 2004, or after Dale Earnhardt died in Daytona in 2001.[14]  Dale Earnhardt, Junior, perhaps best understands what Joseph Campbell means by the “balance between death and life – they are two aspects of the same thing, which is being, becoming.”[15]  Many interviewers have asked Junior, why he keeps driving every week, knowing the risk and the heartbreak as well as he does.  Junior replies, “I know when I go out there I could die … but if I quit driving race cars because of that, I wouldn’t be living.”[16]

[1] Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, eds. The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) 166.

[2] Dave Shiflett, “Dale Earnhardt, R.I.P.,” National Review, 19 Mar 2001: 16-17.

[3] Rick Reilly, “What Drove Dale Earnhardt,” Sports Illustrated, 26 Feb 2001: 86.

[4] Sally Jenkins, “Driving Home an Eternal Philosophy of Life,” The Washington Post, 23 Feb 2001: D01

[5] Geoghegan 226

[6] Balmer 317

[7] Geoghegan 226

[8] Michael Wilbon, “When It Comes To Safety, Better Move Fast,” The Washington Post, 22 Aug 2001: D01

[9] Geertz 103

[10] Geoghegan 224

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jenkins

[13] Golenbock 13; Reilly “What Drove”

[14] Hong 166

[15] Campbell 134

[16] Daniel McGinn and Bret Begun, “The Son Also Races,” Newsweek, 15 Apr 2002: 46-48.

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