It's horrifying to see any human being engulfed in flames, even if he is wearing what amounts to a suit of asbestos. But it's particularly unsettling, given that his father perished on a race track right before our eyes a little more three years ago, to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting in that Chevy Corvette, smack in the middle of that tub of fire.
We know now that the injuries Earnhardt suffered in that inferno aren't even serious enough to keep him on the sideline for an entire week. He'll be back in a car this weekend at the Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway, probably in pain from the second degree burns on his legs, but racing nonetheless. The points structure of NASCAR makes playing hurt paramount, even without the possibility of painkillers.
The people who follow racing and the dramatic evolution of safety the industry has seen over the years tell us that Junior's escape really wasn't that miraculous at all. Yes, once upon a time -- as recent as the 1960s -- it wasn't particularly uncommon for drivers to die by fire. It was a driver's biggest nightmare, actually, to have the fuel tank explode in a crash and die before he could climb out of the car, die sitting in a ring of fire just like the one that engulfed Junior, before help could get to him.
But the fuel cell was invented and it prevents the tank from rupturing in an accident. The safety revolution didn't stop there, either. Now, drivers wear helmets of glass and carbon and Kevlar. They wear suits of Nomex, a special fire-retardant material made by DuPont that doesn't burn, doesn't melt, doesn't support combustion. The driver's suit, his gloves, socks and especially his shoes are woven with Nomex, to the point a driver can be protected for up to 40 seconds even though a gasoline's fire burns between 1,800 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. So every driver is wearing, essentially, fireproof underwear.
You might have noticed while those flames were rising around Junior that you couldn't see his face. That's because he was wearing a close-faced helmet. He didn't always do that. You know how sons like to do what their daddies do? Dale Jr. didn't always wear a closed-faced helmet because his dad, Dale Sr., didn't wear one. Dale is said to have had peripheral vision so great it was like he had eyes in the side of his head, if not all the way in back. And the closed-faced helmet, Dale Sr. said, limited his peripheral vision, which he thought actually endangered him more. So he wore an open-faced helmet and goggles and hoped for the best.
You know what 1,800 degrees does to skin and goggles? It's too much to think about, really. Luckily, pretty much everybody wears the close-faced helmet now. The Nomex and Kevlar are mandatory. Pit crew members wear the same stuff. Fire trucks are right down on the raceway. We are told not to worry.
I'm relieved Junior has been released from a hospital in Sacramento. I'm relieved because it would be too ghastly to have watched a father and son perish on racetracks, on TV. As someone who is more mortified by racing than fascinated with it, I've made a certain peace with having to occasionally watch and write about auto racing. I acknowledge the incredible bravery of the men (and a few women) who do it, but I'm not going to fret over the health and safety of racecar drivers the way I would a policeman or fireman or a security officer who puts him or herself in harm's way to serve and protect.
I won't ever understand the psyche of a driver, or for that matter of anyone who will put himself in harm's way, to that degree of severity, for the sole purpose of sport. Junior wasn't even preparing for a race on his circuit when he was engulfed by those flames. He was driving a sports car, not a NASCAR vehicle. He was just trying to make himself a better road racer during one of the few weeks there was no NASCAR stop. As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone in "The Godfather II," "This is the business we've chosen."
It's not just the business of racing; it's also the business of defying death, of beating it, of outrunning it. God, the rush that must come from that. Still, sometimes, it figures death is going to win sometime, no matter how much Nomex you're wearing. This is the business they have chosen.
My father used to drive from Chicago to Indianapolis every year for the Indy 500 before I was born and when I was a little kid. And he stopped in the early 1960s after seeing a driver burn up in his car and die. Sometimes it seems fair to wonder what's more important, winning the actual race or cheating death.
Of course, drivers are the last people seeking pity. The great majority of them take every precaution available when racing, so that driving isn't roulette, so that they're not rolling the dice with their lives every time they step into a car. And episodes like the one involving Junior the other day, where a driver walks away from the wreck and out of the hospital in a day, are more common than not. To that end, as cold as the words may sound, what happened to Earnhardt Jr. wasn't nearly as bad as it looked.