Editor's Blog: Racing's Dark Side - The Death Of Peter Lenz
When you arrive to pick up your credentials at a motorcycle racing event, they make you sign a form. On that form, you are informed that motorsports are dangerous in whatever capacity you attend, and you do so at your own risk. If you don't sign the form, you don't get your passes, that's how seriously they take this.
For this is something that race fans tend to forget: motorcycle racing really is dangerous. For years now we've been spoiled, with riders invariably getting up and walking away, or at worst being flown out to the nearest hospital in a medivac helicopter, making their return with steel pins holding broken bones together, after missing just a handful of races. Only occasionally does it end badly, such as when Craig Jones was killed in a World Supersport race at Brands Hatch in 2008, or when Daijiro Katoh suffered fatal injuries during the 2003 Japanese MotoGP round at Suzuka.
But even those accidents were a sign of how things have changed. In the early years of Grand Prix racing, all the way through to the mid-1970s, Grand Prix racing would lose a handful of riders every season. Protective gear has improved vastly over the years, and the track especially have seen huge changes, with street circuits disappearing, hard obstacles being removed and walls being pushed back as far as possible, and then covered in air fence for good measure.
Deaths are now an extreme rarity, and like Jones and Katoh, bad luck has been the most significant factor in the fatalities we do see. Jones fell in an unusual and unfortunate location as he was battling with Andrew Pitt and Johnny Rea, and was clipped by Pitt as he lay on the track. Katoh's crash was similarly unusual, and he struck the wall at a place that normally never sees problems. Walls have been moved back and runoff improved around the world, but bad luck is one factor that is impossible to design around.
And bad luck is exactly what struck down Peter Lenz during the USGPRU Moriwaki MD250H support race at Indianapolis on Sunday. According to reports, Lenz fell during the warm up lap prior to the race and was struck by another rider, Xavier Zayat, who was following him. Neither Lenz nor Zayat could do much about the situation, and Lenz suffered traumatic injuries that would eventually prove to be fatal. The crash was just one of those things, but it was one of those things that happen to be deadly.
Lenz' death is a tragedy above all for his family, and for the many friends and fans he had around the world, but most of all, it is a tragedy for motorcycle racing. Lenz was a rare talent, a young boy who at the age of 13 had racked up more lap records, race wins and national titles than most riders do in a lifetime. The comment on the results page of Peter's website for 2006 sums up his talent perfectly: "Undefeated in all pocketbike races checkered in North America".
Peter was going to go a long way. He had been coached by Keith Code and the California Superbike School since 2007, and had fans in both the AMA and MotoGP paddocks. Colin Edwards was a friend of the 13-year-old, and followed Lenz' career closely. Peter and his father were already planning the next stage of his career, and a future in Grand Prix racing seemed assured.
Both Peter and his family knew the risks he was taking. In 2009, Lenz suffered horrific injuries when mechanical failure saw him careen into a tire wall at Portland International Raceway, snapping his tibia and fibula, breaking his femur and humerus. The injuries put Lenz out for months, requiring multiple surgeries to fix and a lot of physical rehab to recover from. But Peter was back out racing as soon as he could, and was in the midst of a serious challenge for the Moriwaki championship when he died.
I first met Peter this time last year, at the 2009 Indianapolis MotoGP round. Peter's father Michael had helped me with a few things over the years, and was an occasional visitor to the site. He had kept me abreast of Peter's career through the years, and it was clear to me that the kid from the Pacific North West was a prodigious talent.
The first impression I had of Peter was of a strange mix between 12-year-old and hard-bitten motorcycle racer. He still had an external fixation device on his leg, but was scooting around the paddock on a kick scooter. He looked and sounded like any 12-year-old might, not interested in talking to a balding journalist in his mid-40s, and ever alert to what was going on around him. But any talk of racing saw his ears perk up, and the diamond-hard glint come into his eyes that marks out the ultimate competitor. This, I told myself, was the real thing, a proper motorcycle racer. The fact that he was 12 years old was just a detail, there was one hell of a butterfly tucked away in that caterpillar just waiting to come out.
It was not to be. Bad luck killed Peter Lenz and put an end to his ambitions, and the hopes and dreams of his many fans around the world. The problem, in the eyes of many outside the sport, is that Peter Lenz was just 13 years' old, and a kid that age should not be exposed to such dangers. What, the critics ask, are people thinking, allowing such young children to risk their lives in racing?
The problem with that question is that it is entirely the wrong one to ask. Children risk their lives all the time, playing football, climbing trees, riding horses and bicycles, crossing roads. Motorcycle racing may seem dangerous because of the speed involved, but the risk is actually in the context of the racing, rather than the sport itself.
I put exactly this point to Kevin Schwantz at Brno, after being kindly allowed to sit in on the rider briefing for the Red Bull Rookies Cup. Pointing to the tragic death of Toriano Wilson at VIR in 2008, I asked whether kids that young should be encouraged to take these risks. Schwantz merely pointed to Brad Binder, one of the Rookies, as he walked past, and said "See Brad Binder? He'd be out there doing this anyway, whether we run the program or not. This way he does it at the best circuits, on the best bikes and with the best protective equipment. Otherwise he'd be doing it with cheaper protection, on a beat up bike round an unsafe track."
The Moriwaki Cup that Peter Lenz was competing was a well-organized series run at good tracks with more than adequate supervision. The Indianapolis round was being run with Grand Prix level staffing, a medical helicopter on standby, the world-renowned Clinica Mobile staff on hand to deal with injuries, and with a wealth of experience in assessing the seriousness of injuries sustained in motorcycle racing. The city of Indianapolis has a level 1 trauma center - the highest level of trauma care available in the US - at Methodist Hospital, and a university medical center attached to Indiana University. Though the Indianapolis track has suffered criticism for being bumpy, there were few safer places on the face of the planet on Sunday than at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the start of the Moriwaki MD250H race.
Last year, though we met only briefly, I saw the intensity in Peter Lenz' eyes of a young man obsessed with life, and utterly focused on competing. I'm convinced that if Peter had not been racing motorcycles, he would have been racing bicycles, or boxing, or running, or even just trying to see if he could run to the top of the next hill faster than his buddies. Whatever Peter was going to do, he was going to do it with the utmost commitment and intensity, and to the best of his ability, and that kind of intensity always entails some kind of risk.
Risk is something most people never truly understand, its statistical finesses too complicated and uncomfortable for most of us to grasp. But any motorcycle racer who has crashed and got back up again has a keen understanding of risk, and knows the physical pain that can ensue. Peter Lenz had crashed before and been badly hurt, but had got straight back to racing as soon as he could. He loved the sport, and he loved to compete, and he understood the risks far better than most of those who criticize his family and the USGPRU organizers for allowing Peter to take the risks inherent in motorcycle racing. Despite having intimate personal experience of the risks and their consequences, Peter kept on racing motorcycles. Because racing motorcycles is what he loved to do.
Should perhaps his parents have stopped him? Whenever I spoke to his father Michael, it was clear that Michael also understood the risks that Peter was taking, and they worried him. He had seen his young son get hurt before, and had discussed the consequences of crashes with Peter. Michael did everything he could to get the best possible training for Peter, not just to make him faster, but also to make him safer. Michael spoke of Peter with pride, with love, but also with concern and with respect. Michael was no pushy tennis dad, forcing Peter into doing something he didn't want, nor was Peter some teenage tyrant, demanding that he be allowed to take whatever risks he liked, just for kicks. Both Peter and Michael Lenz thought carefully about the risks they took, and the maturity I heard in Peter Lenz' answers about racing convinced me he understood what he was doing, and what the consequences were. Michael, like Peter, has a passion for racing, but that passion did not exceed the love for his children.
Personally, I don't believe in a god, and I don't believe in an afterlife, but I do believe that people live on in our memories long after they are gone. Their lives, their deeds, their words serve as an inspiration, a guide to us throughout our own lives. Peter Lenz will live on in my heart and in my thoughts as an inspiration, as a young man with an incredible intensity and a huge talent. He may be gone from this planet, but he rides on forever in my memories. Here's how I will remember Peter Lenz:
If you'd like to help Peter's family, a donation fund has been opened in his name, which you can find here. If you'd like to find out more about Peter's career, you can visit his website and his page on the USGPRU home page, or you can read Chris van Andel's tribute to Peter, who Chris worked with as one of his sponsors. And for an excellent analysis of risk and racing, you can read Bob Kravitz' column on the homepage of the Indianapolis Star newspaper. If you'd like to hear Peter himself speak, go and listen to the interview Jim Race did for the MotoGPOD Podcast.