Today I looked back through some driver profile photos shot in advance of the Perth Motorplex season. Among them was a proud young girl, ready to get her Junior Dragster racing career underway.
Confidently, Anita Board posed. First holding her helmet, then folding her arms in her SFI-rated racing suit – trying to look as tough as a smiling eight year old can. Her eyes narrowed from the size of her grin, which reveals some missing front teeth.
It's the look of a girl enjoying life, awaiting a special moment. The first time she gets to take Pony Power, a scaled down and overly safe dragster, on to the track in just a few short months from that photo. Following in the foot steps of sister Zara, already a capable racer herself.
From Anita's smiling face and her excitement on the day, it is obvious she is not being forced into this by some overbearing parent, like a Dad trying to live out his quarter mile dreams. She's seen her sister having the time of her life and hung out at the track with kids also having amazing fun racing these little machines. She might have been inspired by their actions for sure, but this is something she wanted to do and all the statistics still say it is one of the safest sports a child can be involved with. I suppose I am writing this now to make sense of my own thoughts and feelings on a tragedy.
As far as we know there has never been a fatality in a Junior Dragster, nor even a serious injury like a paralysation. The dragsters have a rollcage built in a similar fashion to those used in every other dragster, designed to protect the driver in the event of every kind of impact. There is a safety harness to keep the driver in the rollcage as well as arm restraints that stop an arm from coming outside the protective area should the car ever roll over.
Drivers wear fireproof race suits. Again to our knowledge there has never been a fire aboard one of these cars, but it is the correct preventative measure to take when you involve a motor of any kind. They also wear neck braces. Indeed, these kids are more protected and safer on the track than they are on a public road.
What we do know currently about Anita's accident is that it was a freak occurrence, that occurred not during the run itself but around the exit turnoff from the track. As her father Ian said during a press conference outside Perth Motorplex, it was one in a million. To be honest, the odds are probably even higher than that.
We will have to wait for the police investigation to conclude to know exactly how such a tragedy happened. I believe that it is correct to wait for the investigation to be completed before resuming racing, as hopefully police can recommend a change to avoid a similar incident ever happening again. But that isn't to say racing will ever be zero risk. Nothing in life ever is.
Most decisions in life involved some kind of risk versus reward trade off. Walking across the street, swimming at the beach or racing a Junior Dragster. So much has been done over the years to make Junior Dragster racing one of the safest motorsports for kids out there, and one of the safest sports period.
I don't have kids of my own, so I can only imagine the pain involved in losing a child. I can imagine the step by step anguish that occurs as you allow a child to take small risks through their lives. It might be running too fast on bricks, climbing high up on playground equipment (indeed there are something like 5000 hospitalisations a year in Australia related to playground equipment), or letting them stay at a friend's house, sleeping without parents nearby for the first time. All of these are risks. But in the risk versus reward scenario they make sense. A life without any risk is a life not lived at all.
I imagine parents learn to trust their kids to analyse risk. Playing football means you could get hurt, but it also means you have an awesome day out exercising, socialising and engaging in friendly competition. Riding a horse means you could get bucked off, but you are trusting a beautiful animal to move you around gracefully. Climbing to the highest point of the playground means you could fall, but you get the rush of the view.
Advocating risk for an eight year old is sometimes not popular on social media. 'Any risk is too much!' they will pontificate.
Risk is a negative sounding word, like a 50/50 chance. The truth is risk comes in all kinds and it can be incredibly small for a large reward – a safe risk. Risk is part of life for all of us and our minds learn it from an early age, when we decide whether or not that ledge is too high to jump off, or if a dog is going to bite when we pat it. These risks grow our minds and develop us into capable adults. If you live a childhood without any risk, you will not have the ability to make sound decisions as an adult.
Criticism in the community has largely come through misunderstanding. Despite having the ability to research the sport, people instead prefer to simply sound their own misinformed beliefs via social media. How could a child be involved in drag racing? They imagine a child being strapped into a nitro-burning dragster and driven through the gates of hell, or maybe even a scene from The Fast and The Furious. These are the same people who would probably let their child ride horses, despite the greater risks of injury. Simply uninformed and close minded.
Then there are those who should know better, people who are smart enough to correctly research (indeed are trained to do so) but still take advantage of the situation, namely mainstream media. The Daily Mail was the worst offender here, describing the dragster as a 'supercar'. Let's back up here – Anita was racing a dragster with a 210cc, single cylinder motor. It's basically a glorified lawnmower motor. It will accelerate about as quickly as a Toyota Hiace, which is to say – not a whole lot. But for an eight year old it is great fun.
The death of a child is never easy to accept and the kneejerk reaction is to prevent any risk to them whatsoever, the cotton wool theory. If you are a parent, you have the right to raise a child like that (and endure the consequences later in life). Parents who do make the decision to involve their children in sports should not be criticised. They are allowing their children to live life, to grow as people. To deny risk is to deny life itself.
I've watched hundreds of Junior Dragster drivers grow up and for the most part they have all become fantastic people. Take Shane Weston, who raced Junior Dragsters from the time he was eight as well. Now he pours his heart and soul into racing, working tremendously hard and contributing to the economy, continuing to be tight knit with his racing family.
Parents aren't stupid. They would not needlessly involve their children in a dangerous sport. Unlike some of the misinformed people who occupy the realms of social media, these people have made a researched, informed and thorough decision to get involved in a safe sport. As we so sadly saw, there is a risk, and the quest for improving safety standards should never be halted.
We will all remember Anita as an eight year old who was enjoying living her life, part of something real and exciting. Pony Power forever.
- Luke Nieuwhof, Drag News Magazine Editor.