Tragedy struck yet another racetrack Saturday night. Sprint car driver Scott Semmelmann was killed in an accident during practice at Beaver Dam Raceway in Wisconsin. Semmelmann’s car made contact with another car and then flipped repeatedly, smashing into the wall. He was 47 years old according to USA Today and curiously racing for the first time in 2014. This is just the latest in a long list of driver fatalities, reminding us that death defying drivers don’t always succeed, and death sometimes wins the race.
Racing’s always been an inherently dangerous pursuit, particularly in its earliest years. Six IndyCar drivers were killed in 1916 alone when safety technology was primitive or non-existent. Bill Vukovich, Jerry Unser, Tony Betttenhausen, Dave MacDonald, Swede Savage, Scott Brayton, Paul Dana, Greg Moore and Dan Wheldon are just some of the better known racing fatalities on the list of over ninety driver deaths in IndyCar alone.
NASCAR’s shorter history nevertheless yields plenty of tragedy, as well. Tony Stewart, still facing a possible grand jury indictment for the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. in August is the latest celebrity racer to encounter a brush with tragedy, although the list is a long one. Dale Earnhart is perhaps the most famous stock car driver to die on track, one of nearly seventy driver fatalities in NASCAR. Add in sprint car and other racing disasters and the late list swells to the hundreds. That’s not counting fan deaths at events, either. Interestingly, a surprising number of fatalities occurred during practice rather than a race.
Every driver who straps into a racecar is well aware of the risks he’s taking. Let’s face it, the obvious danger of racing is a powerfully appealing pull to drivers and fans alike. In that sense, racing and danger go together like lightening and clouds. It’s a loathsome but essential aspect of a package deal. Like most things in life without the risk, there is no thrill, no reward. The lengths technology and safety have advanced in racing’s first century are amazing, but frequent fatalities remind us that racing, like life, can never be made completely safe or risk free.