They never announce the deaths. They don't want the family to find out that way. So there is silence. Silence tells of death at a race track. Ricky Knotts, 26, drove his race car 180 miles per hour into a concrete wall two days ago.You heard the explosion of impact. You saw fire flash and disappear. The car hit another wall. Another explosion. And then you heard the death silence.
Why? Why does a man race cars? Death waits. A man knows it. Why then?
You know A. J. Foyt. Four times a winner of the Indianapolis 500, maybe the best race-car driver ever, Foyt has broken his back racing and he has been burned terribly. He is 45 years old, a millionaire -- and a fatalist.
That's right, "Foyt said. "The man put us here -- and He'll take us. That's a square deal if I ever heard one . . . When your time's up, it's up -- not before, not after."
Has a death ever made Foyt think of quitting?"
"I'm '57, I had a good friend -- I won't tell you his name -- killed. And he just laid on the track while we went by. The thought went through my mind when I wanted to go on. I had to know in my mind if I wanted to do it. mYou just have to accept life the way it is -- and I went on."
So death doesn't bother Foyt now?
"Not me. It does a lot of people. But I've damn near went out a couple of times myself. It's something you learn to live with."
Why does Foyt keep going?
They all say it is fun. In his garage at Indianapolis one year, a driver named Mel Kenyon took off his racing suit. His body was a scar, a pale and blank reminder of fire. His left hand was amputated. To drive, he wore a special glove that attached his stub of a hand to the steering wheel. In the garage at that 500 the stub was flame red, the color of raw meat, and Mel Kenyon dipped it in a bucket of water.
Someone asked Kenyon if he ever thought of quitting.
"Nope. Not as long as it's fun," he said.
They can no more say why they race than a mountaineer can say why he climbs.
The highwire performer, Karl Wallenda, once explained why he went back up there after a fall in Detroit killed two members of his family and left another a paraplegic: "To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting."
David Earl (Swede) Savage Jr. died at 26. He had been in quarter-midgets at 9, go-carts at 12, on a motorcycle at 15, in a stockcar at 21, in an Indy car at 22. He was a prodigy, a rugged and handsome man. They called him The Next Great Driver.
Savage hit a wall in 1971 at Ontario Motor Speedway. Although doctors were surprised he lived, surprised the head injuries didn't leave him with brain damage, although they said he'd never race again, Swede Savage was in a car seven months later -- finishing 12th in a 500-mile race on the same track where he'd been hurt.
At Indianapolis in 1972, Savage said, "The doctors were amazed. The brain cells just regenerated themselves. I had to find out if I could drive again."
You were nearly killed.
"You know, I don't remember anything about it. The last thing I remember is two days before the accident. All I know is that I need to drive."
To be on the wire is life.
The next year, on the wire, Savage crashed again, this time at Indianapolis, this time in flames. This time he died. One of every four drivers who ever raced at Indy has died in a race car. Dan Gurney once said, "Not too long ago I lay awake in bed and I counted all the people I've known who died racing, and after a while, maybe an hour, I counted up to the number 57."
Soon after his melancholy roll call, Gurney got off the wire. He retired as a driver.
What the drivers call "fun is not fun in the sense of play. They are inarticulate. They are men obsessed by "the most compelling, delightful, sensuously rewarding game in the world," as author Ken Purdy describes motor racing in his biography of former world champion Stirling Moss, "All But My Life." These drivers are men addicted to life on the edge.
And it is a joy to see them work.
"It is a challenge," said Gary Baker.
You don't know Gary Baker. "There but for the grace of God, it was me dead and not Ricky Knotts," Baker said today. Like Knotts, Baker was making his first race at Daytona's 190-mph track. An hour before Knotts hit a wall, Baker slid out of control at 180 mph, sliding sideways in front of cars that plowed into him and shoved him into a wall.
Baker was not hurt.
He is 33 years old, married, father of three children. He is a lawyer and accountant in Nashville, where his clients include Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. He is part owner of two race tracks. From Monday through Friday, he wears three-piece suits and is a tall, handsome, symbol of respectability.
"On weekends, instead of turning into a werewolf, I turn into a race driver," he said.
Why does a lawyer risk death in a race car?
"I wish I knew," Baker said. "If I did, maybe I could talk myself out of it."
He laughed when he said that. He didn't mean a word of it. He loves to race. To be on the wire is life. "Look at A. J. Foyt," the lawyer said. "If you look at his balance sheet, it's not General Motors, but it isn't bad. He doesn't need the money. Why does A. J. Foyt race? The same reason we all do. It's a challenge.To get fast, that's the challenge. It's just in some people.
"It's like climbing a mountain. Why climb a mountain? It's still going to be there tomorrow. To some people it's silly, the idea of climbing a mountain. But to a man who lives to climb, it's not silly."
The death of Knotts made Baker "sick, just sick . . . like losing a member of your family." But, he said, "Everybody here chooses to ignore it . . . . The show goes on . . . Drivers just don't think about death. When your day comes, it comes, whether you're doing 190 at Daytona or laying in bed at home."
People who pay to watch car races do not pay to see death. They come to cheer men on a wire. Test pilots take planes to speeds and altitudes that push the sides of "the envelope" which is what they call the unknown borders of their work. Drivers work on "the ragged edge," their machines teetering on a delicate balance of friction and power, a balance that once lost can mean death.
Going up on the wire, pushing the side of the envelope, running on the ragged edge -- man does it all because it is his nature, hs majestic nature, to reach beyond himself. As a sculptor falls to battle with a hunk of marble, as a composer reaches for the stars with music produced in exquisite agony, so does a race driver take life to its limits.
He drives fast.