Skip to main content

Why race car drivers crave speed

By Brian Donovan
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
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
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT