Should a 12-year-old kid be going 100 miles per hour?
That’s the question many people have been asking over the past week, particularly within the Indianapolis media. This follows the tragic death of 13-year-old Peter Lenz on Aug. 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the youth was struck by a 12-year-old rider after falling from his mount just before the start of a support race for the MotoGP.
It is a question that needs to be asked, and should have been asked long ago.
Let me be very clear: Youth motorsports is an outstanding way to develop racing skills, as well as providing kids with discipline, work ethic and social skills. Racing provides a terrific venue for families to bond, and teaches a great range of values to a child.
Our sport has a strong network of programs for young racers, ranging from quarter-midgets to motocross to karts to developmental midgets. These programs give kids an opportunity to learn and progress and transition in due course to the professional level.
But little kids and big tracks (or big cars), that’s a different matter.
Racing is a dangerous sport. Anybody reading this publication knows that. Our sport is vastly more complex than any other, because it literally can be a life-or-death endeavor. You can’t get any more serious than that.
In modern society we have established rules to protect children. You can’t get a driver’s license until age 16 in most states, you can’t join the military or vote until you’re 18, you can’t purchase alcohol until you’re 21. Child labor laws got the kids out of the coal mines a long time ago.
Why is that? Because through the centuries we determined that kids are different than adults. Physically, mentally and emotionally. So we set forth procedures and boundaries to protect them because as adults we have a moral responsibility to do so.
The mainstream does not understand motorsports, and never will. To many people, it’s just a loud and reckless exercise of people going around in circles. This is particularly true in the mainstream media; many stick-and-ball sportswriters literally laugh at racing, considering us the lunatic fringe.
So when the death of a 13-year-old kid at the world’s most respected racing facility lands on the front page, our sport has a monumental problem.
Yes, we can try to explain that sometimes young racers show enough promise that they’re ready for high-speed competition at an early age. But when the local community comes to you and asks why a child was killed while racing at your track, can you honestly look them in the eye and make them understand?
In another time, this simply would not happen. If you weren’t 18 years old, you didn’t race at a professional level. Period. But as racing became “safer” in recent years we softened our position and looked the other way, and before long we had 13-year-old kids driving bad-to-the-bone sprint cars.
If you think this isn’t a critical issue, you’ve got your head in the sand. Make no mistake about it: There are safety fanatics out there who would love to see racing shut down next week, if not earlier. Normally, people dismiss their shrill voice as just noise, but when a little kid gets killed in a race at a major racing venue…well, maybe people start listening.
Understand two facts: One, the mainstream media can change the world when they decide to run with a particular story and give it legs; and two, the business community is profoundly risk-averse when it comes to toxic publicity.
Imagine the coverage on “Good Morning America,” where they run endless footage of a violent accident in which a very young racer is killed or maimed, and parade an array of experts out to talk about the needless tragedy, the negligence of the sport, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Next thing you know, the government decides they need to regulate the sport. I promise you, we wouldn’t like the government getting involved. Not even a little bit.
To avoid that, it’s time our sport began to take steps to protect itself. We don’t have an omnipresent czar over all elements of the sport, so each individual facility must ask: How would my local community react to the death of a child on my race track?
This is very simple. Every facility — particularly big, fast speedways — needs to take an objective look at youth participation at their place. If you’re a fast, tough track, you simply say nobody under 18 — or 16, if you’re feeling lucky — can race here. Your rule trumps whatever rule the sanctioning body has. Simple as that.
Young kids are an enormously important element of our sport. But the time has come to keep them off the big tracks. If we don’t, big trouble awaits.