By on January 22, 2014

ms

It helps to set goals. The other day I agreed to do some coaching and maybe a little driving in a very fast car at a reasonably fast track, fifty-five days from now. In-between now and then I have a lot of rehab and maybe two additional surgeries to knock out, but I’m confident I can do it. Better to agree to something and then work hard to get there than it would be to rehab without a goal and then agree to do something when I’m completely ready, whatever that means. Right now I’m in the kind of pain that makes me swear randomly during phone conversations:

“Well, I don’t think that the Milgauss will always commmand this kind of pricing MOTHERF*&% GOD DAMN IT TO HELL AARRRGH MY LEG forever, it’s the watch of the moment but in the long run it can’t be worth any more than an LV, it doesn’t cost as much to make.”

Regardless of that, however, I’m improving. Ten days ago I couldn’t lift my right foot off the ground; today I can lightly kick my son’s toy airplanes out of my way when I’m walker-clomping to the bathroom. It can only get better.

Michael, on the other hand, isn’t getting better.

I’ve been reading a lot about Mr. Schumacher’s condition in the past few weeks. For those of us who consider ourselves fans of the man, this isn’t the first time he’s given us a good scare. There was the broken-leg accident at Silverstone, during which many race fans cheered. If you want a good, solid example of what a piece of shit the average man on the street can occasionally be, just remember that: they cheered Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone. Then there was the broken neck during Michael’s brief and difficult motorcycle-racing career.

Those were competitive incidents, the kinds of things which, rightly or wrongly, are supposed to happen to competitors. There’s something tragically and terribly fitting about Senna’s death, for example. Same for Gilles Villeneuve’s death. Those things happened in the heat of competition. Racing drivers are supposed to die in races. Not in planes on the way to the race — that’s how musicians are supposed to die. Not in their bathtubs, not in prosaic street-car accidents like the one that crippled Frank Williams and endangered Peter Windsor. It’s the deal you make with the devil. You risk everything behind the wheel of the race car — and then, when you walk away, you’re safe.

Back around the time that Michael broke his neck on the motorcycle, I was holding a series of weekly house parties where a group of my friends and fellow NASA/SCCA competitors would watch the F1 races and then spend the rest of the night bench-racing and generally yakking about random topics until the last person sobered up and went home. There were really only two responses to the news. Most of the women in the group expressed surprise that Michael would bother to risk his life on a motorcycle after amassing a billion-dollar fortune and seven world championships in Formula One. It didn’t make any sense to them. Why take a risk like that after grabbing the golden ring?

Imagine you woke up tomorrow to find that you had the winning ticket for the $200 million Powerball in your wallet. Just how careful would you be that day? If you had a choice between riding a motorcycle to the claims office or driving a Suburban, which would you pick? What about your safety from attack or theft in the process? Don’t laugh; I’ve read that many winning lottery-ticket holders don’t cash in for two or three days because they basically suffer a sort of emotional paralysis during the intervening time. They become paranoid, agitated, disconnected from reality. The successful redemption of the ticket acquires a monumental degree of difficulty in their thoughts. It’s easiest to do nothing.

Since Michael earned everything he had over time, he wasn’t subject to that sort of thinking — but surely it was a risk too far to try racing motorcycles around one’s fortieth birthday? Why not just sit back and enjoy the money, the fame, the respect? But my fellow racers understood his actions perfectly. Michael had beaten so much risk already. He had a mathematical and courageous approach to it. I have no doubt that he minimized every risk during his motorcycle racing career, the same way he knowingly chose to ski with a helmet on. He was neither a daredevil nor a fool. He understood risk, he accepted it, he mitigated it, he moved forward regardless.

More importantly, the Michael Schumachers of this world are born competitors. They approach life as a series of challenges to be overcome, an endless parade of rivals to vanquish. In the movies, you have a Cole Trickle or a stylized James Hunt who is “simply the best” through mysterious or near-magical means, but in the real world, the Michael Schumachers of the world win out. The people who thoroughly examine every obstacle to victory, the people who think it through, the people who take the necessary action. Look at what Michael accomplished at Ferrari: he chose the team, built the team, motivated the team, and set an example for the team by delivering the finest possible performance himself. The same “oiks” who cheered his broken leg at Silverstone had to sit there and watch Michael ruthlessly dominate the sport in the years afterwards. Each year, Michael was a winner again and they were still the same worthless morons catcalling him from the grandstands. How could it be any other way, when you looked at what Michael was and what his lumpenprole critics were?

Even Schumacher’s much-derided return to F1 with Mercedes-Benz looks a little better now in retrospect as we see how readily Nico Rosberg handled Lewis Hamilton as a teammate. There are people who understand and can manipulate Formula One stats much more competently than I can, but from where I sit it looks like if Nico Rosberg was a constant performer over the past few years, then Michael arguably did at least as well as Lewis has done, correcting for the car’s abilities. Michael certainly got a lot out of a relatively crappy series of Mercedes chassis in the first half of a lot of races. He made a lot of courageous, effective moves in traffic. He in no way looked particularly retired or retiring.

Still, when the man retired this year, I think most of us expected him to take up some role in the management of Formula One somewhere. What team could use a man like Michael Schumacher in a management role? Presumably, every team except Red Bull, and possibly even them. The call was going to come, and Michael would respond. Impeccably fit, cringe-worthily attired, laser-focused. Perhaps in the paddock with Kimi and Fernando, managing their differences as an arbiter whom they both respected. Perhaps whipping one of the more feckless teams into shape. But regardless of the precise nature of the return to the sport, we expected something. Because Michael Schumacher was not the type of person to retire from competition at the age of forty-two.

Instead, unfortunately, we have this seemingly random injury. A rock on a ski trail, placed in just the right spot to do the most damage to the head of a fallen skier. Ninety-one wins at the pinnacle of motorsport and then he’s undone by a rock.

If returning from this injury required some spectacular effort of will and determination, who among us would doubt Michael’s ability to beat it? If he woke up tomorrow in full possession of his faculties and his doctors told him that he would have to perform at a measured 98% of his human physical capacity in rehabilitation without a single failure in a year, who would bet against him? If he woke up paralyzed but with a chance to overcome the condition through sustained effort, who would expect anything other than the best possible outcome?

This time, however, Michael’s greatest weapon — his disciplined, courageous mind — has been taken out of the equation. It’s up to the doctors and the machines and random chance and mysterious healing mechanisms dragged up from the watery depths of our biological inheritance as human beings. Michael may never wake up again. This is not something that he can fix through force of will. He may be finished as a conscious, thinking human being. As tragic as it is for his fans, it’s infinitely more so for his family.

I’ve wondered what would have happened if someone had appeared in front of Michael that morning. “I’m from the future,” the someone would say, “and I’m here to tell you that you’re facing massive risk this morning, you shouldn’t go skiing, you should lay off for the day. I don’t have any proof of this, but trust me.” I know a fair number of people who could be dissuaded from just about anything were someone to appear in front of them with a story like that. Even if they didn’t actually believe the whole time-travel thing, their jimmies would be sufficiently rustled by bringing up an exact accounting of their actual risk on a given day in a given activity. Michael Schumacher was not one of them, I’d suspect.

He’d likely have responded with something like: I know the risk, I’m aware of it, used to it, I’ve taken all precautions, kindly step out of the way, I have some skiing to do. The response of a competitor, a champion. Make no mistake. He was never just going to “switch off” that discipline, that courage, that determination, any more than the man on the street can “switch off” laziness, addiction, envy, underachievement. He was always going to be someone to push the boundaries a little bit. He may never return, but who among us will accomplish what he’s done, given twice the lifetime or more?

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36 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Dreams of Michael....”


  • avatar
    faygo

    the latest I’ve read indicates that he is stable and the family is hopeful/positive, but there will be no news until there is news from them. and to explicitly discount any “news” from anyone other source.

    there’s a pretty good piece on the premium side of Autosport about the general circumstances of such an injury, written by a former F1 medical delegate, Gary Hartstein. I forget whether Autosport allows any one-time access to their premium content or not, article is here :
    http://plus.autosport.com/premium/feature/5810/schumacher-injury–the-exf1-doc-view/

  • avatar
    Luke

    The real bitch of it is that HE WAS WEARING A HELMET. He obviously knew the risks, and he matched the equipment and hazard mitigations to the conditions. No matter how much we know and how much we plan nature has a way of wiping it away and forcing us to play by her rules.

    Truly, completely sad. And I agree that it would feel far less sad if it had happened piloting a racing machine.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Yeah this what shocked me the most, he did everything right, had his helmet, etc – however a report indicated he was “off trail” so maybe a small mistake was made. Maybe he really did mess up that one turn at Monaco? ;)

      After speaking with others about the accident I think this proves how relative safe driving a race car is. Look at some of wrecks people have walked away from (remember Webber’s flip?). As JB put it, Michael might leave us because of a silly rock. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My wife was worried when I took my car out on the track but honestly the most dangerous part was the drive TO the event on the highway with all the other fools.

      You could be the safest person in the world and yet still get hit by an asteroid tomorrow. So do you stay inside a bunker your whole life? Michael wanted to go skiing, so he went. No way anyone could have predicted it might be the last thing he did on this planet.

    • 0 avatar
      Domestic Hearse

      Helmets, as they are offered today by most major manufacturers for sports such as cycling and skiing/snow boarding, use very outdated standardization requirements.

      Pick up your latest Outside Magazine for a very thorough examination of current helmet safety, or check out this story at Bicycling Magazine:

      http://www.bicycling.com/senseless/index.html

      The gist: Technology exists today to make helmets for outdoor sports much more effective – far beyond the “styrofoam in a plastic shell” used today. However, most manufacturers are reluctant to offer anything better because A) they’re not legally required to, B) the better helmets will cost more, a competitive cost disadvantage, C) they can in no way advertise these new helmets as “safer” or they’ll open themselves up on the legal front.

      That’s not to say there isn’t a push by safety advocates, and some manufacturers, to move forward with much more effective technology and designs. It’s just a slow moving process.

      Too slow, in fact, to have helped Mr Schumacher.

      • 0 avatar
        burgersandbeer

        I hope they wouldn’t have trouble on the legal front. The helmets were designed to the safety standards of their time within the limits of what people would pay for. Pointing out that an improved model is available doesn’t imply any negligence with previous models.

        Sports would cost is less important would ideally push the technology forward. I don’t think olympic skiers pinch pennies on their equipment, for example. Promote the more advanced helmets through them.

  • avatar

    >>>He had a mathematical and courageous approach to it. I have no doubt that he minimized every risk during his motorcycle racing career, the same way he knowingly chose to ski with a helmet on. He was neither a daredevil nor a fool. He understood risk, he accepted it, he mitigated it, he moved forward regardless.

    I haven’t followed him, or car racing, and I hadn’t heard about his mishap. But that word, “mathematical,” really got my attention.

    Traumatic brain injuries can be devastating. A parental friend, a Harvard Professor, was reduced to the mentality of a four year old. My optometrist was unable to practice after what should have been a very minor fall from her bicycle (no helmet). I once tried to find out the prevalence of such injuries from car crashes for TTAC. NHTSA had nothing–at least so they said–and the one person who I was told might have info, previously associated with NHTSA and at the time with George Washington U, refused to speak with me.

    • 0 avatar
      Stuck in DC traffic

      Friend of mine has a grant from the DOD and NIH to study traumatic brain injuries and strokes that result from them. The study group is wounded solders and unfortunately the statistics on recovery are grim.

      I gathered the issue is the study of these injuries is difficult as our ability to heal varies greatly. You break a bone you can predict with reasonable accuracy how long it takes to mend. The brain, not so much. (disclaimer … I’m an idiot my analysis maybe flawed, my friend, she is the smarty pants PHD)

  • avatar
    kvndoom

    “Ninety-one wins at the pinnacle of motorsport and then he’s undone by a rock.”

    And such is the absolutely maddening neutrality of the universe. Good things can happen to bad people, HORRIBLE things can happen to good people, and sometimes all the precautions (n) you can think of will not save you from what just happens to happen (n+1).

    I hope he either recovers or dies. No one deserves to be a vegetable.

  • avatar
    Stuck in DC traffic

    When you decide to dance with risk you become one with it and learn to respect it and work with it.

    I used to ski a lot when I lived in Utah and got in to steep, deep and big drops. I was at cliff in an off piste area of Snowbird. It’s a steep drop down 20′ then a second drop down 30′. If you catch the lip between the two drops …’you’re gonna have a bad time’. I had the time traveler experience by a buddy who boarded this drop and caught the lip ended up with a tibfib, broken hip and back. He told me his experience and said use caution. I wasn’t cocky, or blew off his advise, it made me more cautious and did more prep than I would have if he hadn’t said something. Of course I caught the lip and blew up my knee. I think back on that moment and realize I would have always dropped in given a second chance. I suspect Schumacher would do the same thing.

    Schumacher was by far a bigger balled risk taker than I will ever be. But all his wins proved he knows how to dance with risk. Sometimes having risk as a dance partner means you get you foot stepped on, you just hope you can walk away after.

  • avatar
    xargs

    I had a pretty good wallop almost 20 years ago that put me in a coma for a few days, followed by about six weeks in the hospital with a ‘conscious but not cognizant’ outlook.

    One day I woke up as myself again, my brain had rewired itself around the problem- some interesting short-term memory loss and odd one-ear-deaf for a few weeks, then back into the world. It took me five years to get it all (as far as I know) back. (I was a college student at the time.)

    Anything is possible, but after this long under the likelihood of a good outcome isn’t great…

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Heartfelt and touching. Your accident sure hasn’t injured your writing abilities.
    I once had a colleague who survived an awful car crash, with multiple injuries, including several cranial fractures. Doctors were amazed that he was alive, and said he would never wake up from a coma, but when he did, they said he would still be a vegetable, until one day he started talking, they said he wouldn’t regain much motoric functions, they said he may never walk again etc. etc..
    By the time I got to know him, 5 years later, he still had some short time memory problems and awsome scars, and there is a chance he may never be ‘perfect’ again, but at least he’s healthy enough to have a job, a Subaru WRX, a bunch of guitars and some Honda Superbike (BlackBird ?)
    Never give up.

  • avatar
    Nostrathomas

    Really strong article, as usual. You always seem to find the one angle to the story that nobody ever really touches on.

    I was never the biggest Michael fan (mostly because he was so predictably good, that it took the entertainment out of the sport), but this is not how a man of this quality should go.

    Btw, Is the Milgauss really going up in price? That’s one watch Ive been hoping to snag on the used market for years…it just never comes down low enough.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The *new* Milgauss is the darling of the trendy-Rolex market, with NIB examples going for $7500 and up.

      I’d like to say that they can’t stay that high forever, but the thing about Rolex is that they price in CHF, basically. This is like Porsche in the Eighties. The dollar is falling apart compared to the Swiss franc so prices will continue to rise, I guess.

      • 0 avatar
        Nostrathomas

        The one that I like (with the green ring) always seems to be a little more than the orange version too for some reason. One of the reasons that I liked the Milgauss is that it wasn’t the obvious go-to watch for your average guy with some spending money who wants a Rolex. That’s what the Submariner is for!

        I guess that might be changing though if the Milgauss is getting popular. I need to see what the people on WUS are selling on the used market, but it looks like my Speedy will have to do single watch duty for a while yet.

  • avatar
    pragmatic

    Brain injuries are unpredictable. While shear will power and mental focus can overcome many injuries the brain sets its own rules. This article brought to mind Herman Mairer’s amazing comeback in 2004 from a devastating motorcycle injury. Schumacher likely has as much drive and determination as Mairer (both sports require similar mental outlook to succeed) but I think he has a much tougher road to travel.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Ref the cheering at Silverstone , there was delight that Schumi was out of competition for a while, but it was a BIG accident and there was relief that he wasn’t seriously injured.Look at it that way.
    I am not a fan of Schumi, but I am a fan of his ability and enthusiasm.It can’t end here.

  • avatar
    Viquitor

    There’s an intriguing irony in all this. Schummy witnessed Senna’s fatal accident that sad may 1st at Imola. Maybe he went back to the devil and made a new deal.

    Maybe he’ll walk away from this, who knows?

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    Sports has many examples of the worst in people. Off the top of my head there is Michael Irvin’s neck injury against Philly, and more recently Seattle fans throwing food at Navvaro Bowman as he was carted off with a destroyed knee. Stories of fan vs fan violence are innumerable.

    Incidentally, Irvin is quoted as viewing the cheering Philly fans as a compliment in much the same way Uncle Mellow suggests above – they were simply excited that he was leaving the game and couldn’t harm their team any more.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    That was incredible Jack. Thanks.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Well-said, Jack. Competitors compete. Fans (like me) spectate.

    This same rule applies to a guy like Peyton Manning. His spine fusion surgery followed mine by a few weeks. I thought “surely he will retire; he’s crazy to return to football”, and the following season he did just that.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    Finally someone has brought up
    the reality of his situation.
    Why don’t GREAT F-1 drivers live long enough to tell us the ‘tales’
    of their career…..
    Maybe it is some great secret among the best drivers that will never be told?

    • 0 avatar
      faygo

      Prost, Lauda, Surtees, Moss, Mansell, Stewart, Piquet, Fittipaldi, Jack Brabham, all still alive & kicking.

      Fangio lived to 84, Phil Hill 81. they don’t all get taken early.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Well, no apparent brain injuries in your case Mr Baruth, thank goodness.

    An incredibly thoughtful article.

    Thanks.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    Now I remember what originally brought me to this site. Great writing, great perspective.

    I’ve been a “danger sport” competitor, though not at anything like an F1 level, and not for several decades. Still, to this day, it always saddens me when somebody I know and respect professes a “love for the crashes” in various motorsports.

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    A year ago, while taking a recently purchased classic road bike out for quiet ride on my favorite trail. I got a little rambunctious and took a corner hot caught a pedal on the low side, highsided and off I flew which resulted in a concussion, broken helmet, road rash, blood, doctor’s visit, X-rays, and a “holy $hit” moment that lasted a good long time. Maybe it was the look that my SO gave me when she found me limping along the highway because I’d given her the wrong directions to the accident, or the reminder, “You are 58 years old”, or when I asked the doctor why he xrayed my hips after xraying my painfully sore ribs and he said “Because you are of the age”. Of course I analyzed why the accident happened and it was my shear stupidity at riding the wrong bike in the wrong style on a reverse camber hard left at speed combined with the a certain randomness of velocity, crank rotation, cadence, timing, turning, etc. but I still remember the exhilaration of entering the corner and every detail of the wreck till the moment I hit the asphalt and crossing off one more of my 9 lives.

    My heart grieves for Michael, to be laid so low through the random tragedy of life because there for the simple grace of God go I.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I’ve been encouraged about your condition to see you writing here, and fairly prolifically. This piece is certainly a cherry-on-top. Thanks!

    Here’s a perspective on what you discuss . . . from the point of view of someone whose odometer is about to roll over to 65 in a few months:

    It is a commonplace that people my age and older usually regret what they didn’t do; and usually don’t regret what they did do — the opposite of the old Anglican “General Confession” (“we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done”). And, at some point, people my age — especially perhaps if they have some terminal disease — make peace with the fact of their mortality and even realize that the point of life is not to live forever — because no one does that — but to make good use of the time granted.

    So, perhaps people like Schumacher come to this realization early. It’s not that they’re foolhardy (like a 16-year old street racing on bias-ply tires in a car with ineffective drum brakes) but that they cast a cold eye on life and, knowing the risks and minimizing them as best they can, make the conscious decision to accept them and go forward because that’s how they choose to spend their life.

    Most late teen-age, early 20-year old men are oblivious to risk and think they’re invulnerable. In the great wars, this has made them invaluable as fighter pilots, bomber pilots, submariners and infantry second lieutenants (groups who suffered staggering casualty rates).

    Most men lose that sense of invulnerability when they reach their 30s and spend the rest of their lives avoiding risk whenever possible. The fact that Schumacher and others like him embrace risk makes them unusual and, as you say, makes them praise-worthy as well.

  • avatar
    Cole Trickle

    Well done Jack. I’m glad your fingers and your brain are 100%, even if your body isn’t just yet. Speedy recoveries to you and Mr. Schumacher.

  • avatar
    jdh

    At the risk of changing the subject, how is your lady friend doing?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      She’s coming out of the hospital in five days and will be hanging out with me for 30 days or so before having the final two surgeries that will allow her to return to New Mexico.

      Ninety days from now, according to her doctor, she’ll be as good as new. Right now she’s mobile with a walker, like me, and she has some fairly scary-looking exoskeleton stuff bolted to her lower body.

      She’s the bravest woman I’ve ever met. I’m lucky to know her. Don’t quote me on this, but the day might come where people cyberstalking her will have to look for a different last name.

  • avatar
    racerxlilbro

    Thanks for this, Jack. It’s a great piece. I plan to share this with my friends. I hope your recovery is swift and as pain-free as possible.

  • avatar
    psychoboy

    55 days from now is mid March, so that’s not LeMons Barber or LeMons Eagles Canyon…

    Where are you planning your triumphant return?


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