Skip to main content

Why race car drivers crave speed

By Brian Donovan
December 4, 2013 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
Paul Walker, a star of the "Fast & Furious" movie franchise, died Saturday, November 30, 2013, in a car crash. He was 40. For more about his life and career, watch "Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane" Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET. Paul Walker, a star of the "Fast & Furious" movie franchise, died Saturday, November 30, 2013, in a car crash. He was 40. For more about his life and career, watch "Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane" Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET.
HIDE CAPTION
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
Paul Walker: Life in the Fast Lane
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brian Donovan: First time experienced high speed racing, it felt addictive, a powerful force
  • He says we can't know Paul Walkers state of mind before crash, but speed can exert control
  • He says racing high common to race car drivers, an altered state one can come to crave
  • Donovan: Parents who spot it in their kids would do well to get them professional instruction

Editor's note: Brian Donovan is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, an Eastern Motor Racing Association champion and author of "Hard Driving, The Wendell Scott Story: The American Odyssey of NASCAR's First Black Driver."

(CNN) -- I'll never forget that day, back in the 1970s, when I first experienced the intense -- and probably addictive -- state of mind that would become a powerful force in my life.

No, I'm not talking about some drug. I'm remembering the first day I drove a racing car and the new level of consciousness I experienced as I sped down the curvy hill at the old Bridgehampton Race Circuit on Long Island.

It came after a long straightaway, the car already at full speed as I began accelerating down the slope.

To be competitive, I had to keep my right foot hard on the accelerator and banish all thoughts from my mind, except how I was going to steer the car through the deceptively tricky right turn at the bottom without skidding off the road and crashing.

Brian Donovan
Brian Donovan

The high state of concentration and excitement was exhilarating, and for the next 24 years I was hooked on my hobby as an amateur car racer.

I drove Formula Vees, which are single-seat, open-cockpit, open-wheel cars with a Volkswagen engine in the rear and a top speed of about 120 -- and a bit more when you were charging down a hill in the mental state that competitors often describe as the "racing high."

My competitors and I, of course, were fortunate to be having this experience on racetracks and not on the unpredictable public roads. We'll never know the final thoughts and feelings of actor Paul Walker and his friend, businessman Roger Rodas, as they sped to the fiery end of their lives on a California highway. Both of them, like me, drove race cars as a hobby. But their deaths may provide yet another example of the power that speed can exert over the minds and feelings of even highly intelligent people. Possibly there's also a lesson for parents -- a topic we'll get back to in a few paragraphs.

Opinion: Why Porsche Carrera GT is not a car to mess with

I learned more about the so-called racing high while I was doing the reporting for the book "Hard Driving," a biography of NASCAR's first black driver, Wendell Scott, who broke the color barrier in southern stock car racing in 1952.

No smoke for a minute after Walker crash
Paul Walker's secret gift to soldier
Driver: Porsche is like a wild animal

Scott and some of his fellow drivers spoke to me at length about the depth and nature of their passion for speed. Let me share a little of what I wrote about this: "Scott's obsessive desire to race, like that of many drivers, comes from a deeper impulse than just financial gain. By his own account, a central reason for the passion that he brought to the sport was that the experience of driving in races was something he both loved and craved. Motor racing can put a driver into a mental zone where adrenalin combined with deep concentration brings about a profound altered state.

"During a race, the mental background noise of ordinary life, the static that chatters along in the everyday consciousness, is muted, and the racer fuses with the car and the craft of driving, absorbed completely in the slow-motion passage of the seconds. Racing can offer a taste of the intense states experienced by meditators and mystics. The experience, some drivers say, can be highly addictive. Scott himself put it this way: 'Racing cars gets to be about like being a drug addict or an alcoholic. The more you do it, the more you like to do it.'

"Former NASCAR driver Larry Frank, a friend of Scott's, described his own feelings about racing as 'like an addiction...there was many years that you just didn't know anything existed outside this little racing circle... After the race, win or lose, if you just run hard, you got out all of your frustration, and you just felt clean and good.'"

As for myself, I lost the desire to drive recklessly on the public roads after I discovered the much more intense mental pleasure that racing can bring — and with much less risk. I got my racing high while wearing a safety harness, fire-resistant suit and a helmet. The car had a crash-protection cage and a fire-extinguishing system. There were safety workers at every turn. And nobody on the tracks was drunk or texting.

The possible lesson for parents, though it sounds counterintuitive, might be this: If your youngster is showing a yen for speed, consider taking her or him to the local go-kart track for some professional instruction. Maybe your child will realize that a racetrack is a much safer place than the public roads to enjoy the profound pleasures of speed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian Donovan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT