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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT