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IndyCar drivers excel at blocking out danger even after major accidents

When a collision with a Walt Disney World Speedway wall rendered him a quadriplegic 11 years ago, then-Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt knew he'd have to find a reason to wake up each morning.

It would have to be a darn tantalizing one. To this day, Schmidt requires roughly two hours — and assistance — to get into an accessible shower chair, shave, brush his teeth, groom his hair, then cap it off with 30-45 minutes of range-of-motion exercises.

"You have to find out what makes you tick internally so you have a reason to get up," he said.

Schmidt didn't have to search his psyche for long. The one thing that could inspire him to endure the pre-dawn grind of getting out of bed was the very endeavor that put him there.

Today, the wheelchair-bound owner of Sam Schmidt Motorsports remains as passionate as ever about the open-wheel vocation that once caused him to stop breathing for four minutes.

The prospect of death? A fact of life.

"If you think about it a lot, you need to be home on the couch watching," he said.

Whatever it is that makes Schmidt and his kind tick, it probably wasn't installed at the factory. Theirs is a modified breed for sure.

While the need for speed may be a universal mantra toasted with testosterone (at least in the case of males), most of us can get our fix on a carnival ride. But those IndyCar competitors who will shoehorn themselves into cockpits for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg take it to a different stratosphere.

For them, every turn is wrought with peril, especially on an oval course. Compromise the inches that separate the tires of competing cars, and a driver can find himself spinning end over end at the mercy of centrifugal force.

The question is, what prompts them to get back in the car when the spinning has stopped? Why do the dudes and Danicas accelerate onward in spite of the risks? Why would Schmidt remain involved in something that nearly took his life?

"It's dangerous, but let me tell you, it is thrilling," said Ryan Briscoe, who sustained microfractures to eight vertebra after a tire-to-tire incident at Chicagoland Speedway sent him flipping over another car and into the wall in 2005.

"When you're out there and so close to each other, I mean, sometimes you're holding your breath, but, man, it's like nothing I've ever experienced."

Which isn't to say Briscoe, who owns six victories in the IndyCar Series, and his peers are oblivious to the danger. They've simply learned how to co-exist.

"I think sometimes the knowledge of danger involved, for me, makes me perform even better," Briscoe said.

Such a sentiment might be universal. To many, danger represents neither ally nor foe, an intangible to be neither embraced nor shunned.

Briscoe, back in a race car roughly six weeks after the Chicagoland accident, suggests it must be acknowledged behind the scenes, but not dwelt upon behind the wheel. You prepare meticulously, seize every safety precaution available, then, as Schmidt says, "You block it out the best you can."

"You can't drive thinking of the dangers involved or you're never going to be driving 100 percent," Briscoe said.

"I think it's something you have to accept," added Will Power, who won five races, including St. Petersburg, last year after breaking two vertebra in his lower back during an August 2009 practice.

"This is a dangerous sport and things can go wrong. That's all you can do. There's nothing more to it. If I sit down and think about it, I know someone gets injured every year in this series. It can scare you a little bit."

Dr. Jacques Dallaire concurs that the most successful drivers are the ones able to concentrate most.

Dallaire, who owns a doctorate in exercise physiology but has spent 30 years developing performance-enhancement and mental-skills programs, has created what he calls "The Seven Key Rules of the Mental Road."

Rule No. 2: The mind can only process one thought at a time.

"If a driver is thinking of a corner he just blew, as he's driving into the next corner, what's likely to occur?" asks Dallaire, who has worked with nearly 700 drivers in all types of racing and lists Helio Castroneves among his clients.

"People who deal with high-risk, high-danger environments, or are coming back from an injury in those kinds of environments, their most effective way of dealing with it is controlling their focus so they can focus on what's most important at that moment.

"There's no room in their central processor for any past memories or thoughts."

A simple premise? Sure. An easy one to execute? Not always. Fortunately for those who will navigate the streets of St. Petersburg this weekend, a mutual sense of trust further insulates them from the fear of a worst-case scenario coming to debris-flying fruition.

"That's one thing about IndyCar racing, especially on the ovals, generally the drivers have a lot of respect for each other, because we know what can happen," Power said.

"We understand the risk. We try to give each other as much room as possible, which is instead of a half-inch, an inch."

But in this, one of the most daring games of inches, sportsmanship isn't collision-proof. From 1996-2006, six drivers died in CART/Champ Car, or IRL-sanctioned events.

Briscoe still required oxygen a week after touching tires with Michael Andretti at Chicagoland. At last year's Indianapolis 500, Mike Conway got entangled with Ryan Hunter-Reay on the second-to-last lap, sending Conway's car flipping end over end before crashing into a wall.

Conway suffered a compression fracture of one of his thoracic vertebrae, as well as multiple fractures to a left leg that still bothers him.

Like Briscoe and Power, he'll race Sunday. Can't wait, in fact.

"It's what we know, it's what we know how to do," Conway said. "Not to be in the car is unnatural for us. It's not being able to get back in which is the annoying part."

On-track deaths in IRL/CART since 1996

Scott Brayton

May 17, 1996, Indianapolis 500 practice session.

Jeff Krosnoff

July 14, 1996, Indy Toronto, Exhibition Place, 3 laps from finish.

Gonzalo RodrIguez

Sept. 11, 1999, Grand Prix of Monterey, Laguna Seca (Calif.) Raceway, qualifying.

Greg Moore

Oct. 31, 1999, Marlboro 500, California Speedway, Lap 10.

Tony Renna

Oct. 22, 2003, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, private testing session.

Paul Dana

March 26, 2006, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Indy 300 practice.

IndyCar drivers excel at blocking out danger even after major accidents 03/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 10:37am]
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