March 9, 2016
After suffering severe burns in a racing accident at Circuit of the Americas last month, several motorsports organizations requested interviews with me shortly after I was released from the hospital.
I'm afraid they may not like what I have to say.
As my good friend Rick Baldick, former GM motorsports executive, once told me, “Auto racing is the most over-regulated sport on earth.” Even after my terrible experience that left me with 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 7% of my body, I am not in favor of more regulations. I honestly believe it's time for the demands, mandates and regulations to stop.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is an absolute truth. We cannot make a new regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, without setting in motion a domino effect that creates unintended consequences.
For example, long ago some very well-intentioned people created regulations that every race car should have a window net, and every driver should be buckled into their seat. Since then, every racing organization on earth has adopted those mandates.
And because of those mandates, I could have been killed when fire consumed our team's Porsche 944s last month. I didn't crash, so the seat belts did me no good whatsoever. There was no flying debris and my arms weren't flailing about, so the window net was of no benefit. However, the time spent unbuckling my harness and removing the window net so I could escape the fire caused me to be burned much worse than I otherwise would have been.
Of course, under other circumstances it might have been the same window net and seat belts that saved me. But that's just the point. We cannot predict the circumstances of an accident. One size does not fit all, and every new effort at universal mandates only perpetuates the domino effect of unintended consequences.
Decades ago, the originators of these regulations envisioned none of this. They had good intentions. Nevertheless, the unintended consequences of those mandates nearly got me killed.
Now, had those same people long ago chosen to use peaceful persuasion to convince a generation of racers to voluntarily use a window net and harness, my optional decision to use those items would have placed the responsibility for my injuries squarely on my shoulders and no one else's.
Every new safety gadget that we are forced to put on, must come back off before we can escape a burning car. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. No new rule can be passed without creating a domino effect of other unintended, and frequently undesirable, results.
In some ways, this attitude was inevitable. Modern Americans have been raised in an environment of mandates and regulations. There are hundreds of pages of federal regulations demanding how our home toilets must flush and what kind of light bulbs we can use, every one of them “for our own good.”
We are no longer the Land of the Free. Instead, we are now the Home of the Slave. Mandates, regulations and policies command every minute detail of our daily lives. So it is little wonder that most of the American racing community shares the same mental attitude.
Obviously, insurance policies will necessitate some regulations in order for a racing series to function. But it is time for the tidal wave of regulations to be reversed. No new regulations. No new demands that threaten to ban a team from competition unless they comply.
Auto racing needs a change of attitude. We can't change the world overnight, but we can begin to foster an atmosphere of peaceful persuasion rather than regulatory force and mandates. If our ideas are good, we won't have to force others to practice them. They'll do it on their own. And if we have to force people to accept our ideas, then perhaps our ideas aren't that good in the first place.
I truly believe this is the right, moral thing to do. First, because it's just time to grow up. In third grade, we all expected that the bossy girl no one liked would try to tell everyone else what to do. But we're adults now. Going around insisting that “I'm not going to let you participate until you meet my demands” is just not what big people do.
Secondly, because no matter how hard you try, you can't save people from themselves. But if you can peacefully persuade them to your position, you've earned a friend and obviated the need to forcibly regulate them into compliance with your demands.
Do I want to do away with window nets and safety belts? No. Of course not. I will continue to use them, along with every other safety gadget I can find. But I would like to do away with the sport's prevailing attitude of universal, mandatory regulation as the answer to every problem.
I was badly burned in a racing accident last month. I am now an ambassador for motorsports safety. I will do my best to persuade my fellow racers to update their safety gear and use it faithfully.
But I will not support more force and more mandates. Not one more bloody regulation. No more unintended consequences. I want to compete in racing series that grant more discretion to teams and drivers and place fewer demands upon them. That is the future of motorsports. The era of perpetual mandates is over.
Auto racing's fanatical penchant for over-regulation is an embarrassment to the sport, and it's high time we reversed the trend.
*** From series officials: To help them through this difficult time, a Relief Fund Project for Stephen and his family has been initiated. Please share this on your social media and support the effort with any donation, big or small. Thank you.
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
GT Challenge road racing champion
3-time WRL race winner