The format of the Wings for Life World Run is like no other race. Instead of running toward a fixed finish line at a distance well known to the participants ahead of time, the finish line actually chases you as you run ahead of it. The distance you ultimately run is totally up to you, and your race is only over when the finish line — in the form of a Catcher Car — passes you.
But who’s behind the wheel of this Catcher Car? Around the globe, the list includes Formula 1 drivers David Coulthard and Max Verstappen, and in Santa Clarita, California, motorsports legend Ricky Johnson returns to pilot the Catcher Car for a second year. He’s used to pounding the pedal to the floor while racing off-road trucks, but don’t worry, he’ll be going a lot slower when he’s driving behind you (see the Catcher Car speeds under Johnson’s Q&A below).
What was it like to drive the Catcher Car in Santa Clarita last year?
Ricky Johnson: I had no idea what was in store for me. Being a race truck driver, when someone tells you that you have to start off at 9 mph and to not speed, you don’t know what to expect.
It takes a while to start catching people. I’d give ‘em a honk or somebody started yelling, and then they’d try to get that last little bit in there. I’m the guy who’s sort of the bearer of bad news because I’m catching them and their race is over, but in some cases I’m the bearer of good news because they don’t have to run anymore.
Do any of the runners you caught stand out?
I just remember that Shannon Rahlves [2015 female winner in Santa Clarita] was just so calm. She had such a great pace going. She stopped at all the energy stations and stretched, and her brother [legendary World Cup skier Daron Rahlves] was saying, “What are you doing? We have to keep running!” But she stuck to her plan, and she ran a lot longer than he did.
How do you maintain each of the speeds?
I was worried about that myself. There’s a gauge in the car, they have a zone that shows where I’m supposed to be and when I’m supposed to be there. It’s hard to keep it exactly in place but there’s a guy in the car with me and someone in front and someone behind me, helping to keep me on track.
Obviously, the key here is not to go too fast. If you start to relax and take your focus off for a second, you end up going too fast, which is typically not a problem in a race (laughs). This is a matter of staying constant, not drinking too much fluid, and being a valuable tool to the whole process. To be honest with you, I thought I’d hate it, but I’m really looking forward to it this year. I’m stoked to be asked to come back to do it again.
How far do you think you would get if you were running ahead of the Catcher Car?
Due to the beating my body has taken, I’m a candidate for knee replacement right now so I’d probably get caught within the first 20% of the people. One thing I’m not good at anymore is running. I’d probably cheat and bring rollerblades.
Here’s How It Works
Half an hour after the Wings for Life World Runners start, the Catcher Cars start driving at precisely 15km/h (9.32 miles/hr). All the drivers will speed up at the same time worldwide and maintain the same speed. Since the Wings for Life World Run starts at 11am UTC in all 34 locations, a Global Race Control and the help of technology ensure that all drivers speed up at precisely the same moment.
11.00 UTC – RACE START
11.30 UTC – CATCHER CAR START – PACE of 15km/hr (approx. 9.3 mph)
12.30 UTC – PACE INCREASE: 16 kph (9.94 mph)
13.30 UTC – PACE INCREASE: 17 kph (10.56 mph)
14.30 UTC – PACE INCREASE: 20 kph (12.43 mph)
16.30 UTC – PACE INCREASE to 35 kph (approx. 21.75 mph)
Behind The Scenes
The Catcher Cars are fitted with tracking technology developed specifically for the Wings for Life World Run. A participant’s local and global ranking will be determined by the distance covered before being passed by the Catcher Car, not by the time spent running. The Catcher Cars are governed by the Wings for Life World Run rulebook, ensuring fair and simultaneous progress on the 34 tracks around the world. All runners’ progress and final results across all tracks will be recorded by a timing tag hidden in each runner’s race number. The tag is activated as a runner crosses the start line and is deactivated and the final distance recorded when he or she is passed by a Catcher Car.