For a certain adventurous type, a simple race--running, sailing, biking or swimming -- just won't suffice.
These people want to do more than test their speed and skill; they want to confront mortality and are only satisfied when there is an element of danger to a competition. Whether it's motorcycles, sports cars, boats, animals or just feet, they are flocking to the most challenging and dangerous races around the globe.
Few official industry statistics are kept that chronicle all injuries and deaths in all races, but plenty of stories provide a sense of which carry high danger rates.
Over a thousand trucks, motorcycle and dune buggy racers are expected to compete this November in the Baja 1000, a hazardous 1,000-mile trek across the rugged terrain of Mexico and Southern California, complete with blind turns and a history of spectators sabotaging the course.
But for pure casualties, even the Baja can't match the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, a series of high-speed motorcycle races on the small British island that has claimed about 180 lives since its inception in 1907, or about two per year. Meanwhile, the Dakar Rally, a car, truck and motorcycle race that covers 700 miles from Portugal to Senegal, has resulted in 45 casualties in the past 27 years.
Jerry Kunzman, executive director of the National Autosport Association, says that auto racing is safer than it was, particularly since the 2001 death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt resulted in more cars being fitted with improved head and neck restraints. But the sport still takes about three lives per year.
"Oval [track] racing has big groups of cars together, so a mistake by one driver could mean 20 getting into an accident," Kunzman says. He adds that open road racing, while more spread out, has more configurations and angles that could cause a crash and typically carries a higher risk of rollovers.
The Indianapolis 500 has produced 41 deaths since 1909, according to the race's Web site, while the NASCAR circuit has suffered ten fatalities since 1989, though none have occurred since Earnhardt's death.
Competitive thrill seekers aren't all 20-something Mountain Dew-chugging climbers, jumpers and extreme skateboarders. The top four finishers in the last Iditarod, the renowned 1,150-mile dog-sled race across Alaska, were all over 50 years old.
What makes them take on such risky endeavors? Dr. Samuel Putnam, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowdoin College in Maine, says thrill seeking behavior is mostly genetic, and that signs of it--from climbing the highest tree to swinging as high as possible on a swing set--can be recognized from very early ages.
"There is a gene that seems to be associated with adventure-seeking behavior," says Putnam.
Some risk takers not enamored with motor sports take their adventure from the sea. In 2001, Gail Browning, a marine surveyor in Annapolis, Md., and a veteran sailor, became the first American in 20 years to compete in the Mini Transat, a treacherous 40-day boat race from France to Brazil. Tricky and ever-changing conditions keep the course fraught with danger, and during the 5,000-mile competition, an Italian racer on a competing boat fell overboard and was lost at sea.
"I started with plenty of wind, but at one point it died down and I drifted for 300 miles," says Browning, who also endured a big storm during the Mini Transat's 1,000-mile qualifying race.
"The most frightening thing is wondering what you'll do if it gets worse," she says.
For sailors even more intrepid, there's the around-the-world Global Challenge, a U.K.-based trek that covers 29,000 miles and touches five continents. The race, launched in 1992 by sailor Sir Chay Blyth, attracts more first-time sailors looking for adventure than it does veteran seafarers.
"It's people who ask themselves, 'Have I really done what I've wanted in my life?' " Blyth says. Over 200 racers who paid the $50,000 entry fee will kick off the 2008 Challenge, enduring a course that's purposely designed for maximum difficulty. It forces competitors to sail west, against the wind and currents.
Blyth, the first ever to sail around the world westward in 1971, said no one has died in the event's four races so far, though "there are plenty of fatalities in yacht racing."