With adolescence comes the right to drive, and with that comes the right to snicker at auto racing and say, "I could do that." You couldn't, and not just because you don't have the requisite eye-hand-foot coordination, reflexes, stamina or gearheadedness. Beyond those physical traits, racing requires uncommon psychological fortitude. Says former Formula One champion Jackie Stewart, "One of the great abilities of racers is that they can compartmentalize their minds."
In February during the Craftsman Truck Series Daytona 250, Geoffrey Bodine tumbled down the frontstretch in a fiery ball of disintegrating metal. The wreck (above) was so horrifying that ESPN, which broadcast the race live, didn't replay it. Bodine suffered a cracked vertebra, a broken right wrist and numerous cuts and abrasions. He was knocked unconscious, and while he was out, he says, he saw his father—who died in 1998—bathed in bright light and standing in a long tunnel. Bodine's rehab included intense physical therapy and a guest spot on The Montel Williams Show (the topic: near-death experiences). Last Friday he climbed back behind the wheel of a car, somehow cleared his mind and turned in the fourth-fastest qualifying lap for the Winston Cup race in Richmond. On Saturday he ran 187 of the 200 laps before leaving the cockpit in exhaustion.
Bodine wasn't the only driver to return last week from a near-fatal crash. On May 2, Scottish F/1 driver David Coulthard was en route from southern England to Nice, France, when his Learjet was forced down in Lyon. The plane cartwheeled and caught fire, and the nose was sheared off, killing the two pilots. Coulthard, his fianc�e and his personal trainer walked away from the wreckage (above, left) with only minor injuries. By all rights Coulthard should have been on a therapist's couch—or at least in one of Montel's guest chairs—on Sunday. Instead he was in Barcelona, where he finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix.
That Bodine could even look at a car again, let alone drive one, and that Coulthard could similarly block out thoughts of his brush with death underscores the mental toughness required to race for a living. "I'm not afraid of getting in another wreck," Bodine says. "There's no apprehension whatsoever. It might be normal to have some apprehension, but racers aren't normal."