“After the first impact, I just closed my eyes and held on. I knew nothing I was going to see would help me out later.”
That’s how IZOD IndyCar Series driver Pippa Mann described her thoughts as she was tumbling through the air during the tragic season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway six weeks ago. In that moment, Mann knew she was in for a wild ride, but she had no way of knowing just how much of a ride it would be. Contrary to human instinct, Pippa tried to relax her body, pulled her knees toward her, and prepared for the worst. After impacting the wall and catch fence, the car landed back on the track upside-down with Pippa’s helmet scraping along the pavement for several hundred feet. When the smoke had cleared and the grinding finally came to a halt, Pippa found herself right side up again in the middle of a battle zone littered with pieces of 14 different race cars in a horrifying spectacle that looked like a deleted scene from Driven. While Mann was conscious and clear of life-threatening injuries, it didn’t take her long to realize her right hand was in bad shape.
Though initially reported to have “only” second-degree burns to her right hand, Pippa actually suffered major injuries to her pinky finger that went well beyond a skin burn. In the days following the accident, Pippa underwent surgery that found the need for transplants of nerves, blood vessels, tendons, and skin. It would be at least three months until she was able to return to driving and six months before she would be back at “full” strength, whatever “full” might mean in the future.
But this isn’t a story about Pippa’s injuries. This is about how even as Pippa was enduring the worst pain and injury of her racing career, she still found the strength to reach out and be a rock of support for others.
One week removed from the accident, I was in attendance at the Dan Wheldon Memorial Service at Indianapolis’s Conseco Fieldhouse attending the event with a race fan who had actually been in Las Vegas the week prior. Several minutes after we took our seats, Pippa and another friend sat down beside us, and we quickly began conversation. As much as I tried to keep the conversation light in nature and avoid talking about the tragic circumstances that were the genesis of our gathering, the talk eventually went toward the accident and quickly turned somber. When my friend broke down in tears of grief, it was Pippa who put her massively bandaged and obviously still pained hand around my friend and did the best she could to console her. Here, this driver, who was only seven days removed from being involved in a tragedy that had shaken the racing world and bearing her own great physical and emotional scars, put her arm around a race fan she didn’t know and sought to bring her comfort. Very few people saw this gesture and even fewer likely noticed it, but for one race fan, it was a genuine gesture that spoke volumes about the type of person Pippa really is.
Several weeks later, I was asked to accompany my father-in-law and a couple of his friends to Indianapolis when one of them had to visit the city for a doctor’s appointment. Being race fans, they had asked if I could show them some of the racing sights around the city, including of course the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I obliged and did my best to set up a couple fun activities for them throughout the day. I thought it would be neat for them to meet a driver who had actually raced in the Indianapolis 500 and hear what racing at over 200 mph was really like, so on the ride to Indianapolis that morning I sent Pippa a message to see if she might be available to meet a few impressionable race fans. Fully expecting her to have plans for the day, I was quite surprised when she messaged back saying she was free and could meet us at the track later that afternoon. Though we were slightly delayed in arriving thanks to a tour at the Andretti Autosport headquarters (huge thanks to Kimberley Jackson and the great folks at Andretti Autosport) and knowing that Pippa was running short on time, I was concerned that she might not be able to oblige us, but thankfully she was running a bit tardy as well. For about 20 minutes, we stood in a chilly, windy parking lot while three race fans who had never met Pippa asked her all sorts of questions, ranging from how she got started in racing to her experience as a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and, of course, her memories of “The Accident.” Again, few people saw this gesture and donation of Pippa’s time and even fewer noticed it, but it made a remarkable impression on those three gentlemen. My father-in-law, a minister, even spoke about the experience in a recent sermon to his congregation, so this story, known at the time to only five people, has now been shared with a couple hundred more and Pippa’s fan base has grown as a result of this one small gesture.
Pippa Mann has taken her fair share of lumps and criticism this past year -- some justified and some not -- but stories like these and countless others of her efforts to reach out and connect with the INDYCAR Nation should be remembered every bit as much as what she is able to do on the track. Sadly, we live in a society that uses a person’s on-track or on-field performance as 95% of the basis for reputation. The outstanding character of an athlete is sadly all but forgotten if it doesn’t come with a win on the field. Conversely, unscrupulous character is too easily forgiven from those who do produce victories. How athletes treat people away from the field is rarely seen by the public, but it is never forgotten by those whom they personally touch. Pippa Mann is the personification of this trait. Though these are just two examples, I have personally witnessed many more of these actions throughout the year, and I know fans could fill many pages with their own tales of Pippa’s kindness, even in her most difficult times. It has been a lot of fun to get to know Pippa and to call her my friend. But it has been even more inspiring to meet and know someone who believes in treating people right all the time and who I know will make a wonderful role model for my daughter.
At Wheldon’s memorial service, Mike Kitchel, the PR director at Mann’s former team, Panther Racing, spoke these words: “The one thing we control is ourselves and the type of people that we are. If we could somehow capture one-tenth of the millions and millions of things that made Dan Wheldon great -- being courteous, compassionate, never too busy to stop and speak with a fan, and able to recognize that every once in a while you have a small window to make a positive difference in somebody's life or just to make somebody feel special -- I think that if we could all do that then we could take [INDYCAR Racing] wherever we wanted.”
Pippa Mann certainly captures and displays that spirit. I know her fellow countryman would really be proud of her.
Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.