The Sport That Dan Wheldon Loved

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The mindset of a racer is an odd thing. They are able to shut out all distractions around them and focus exclusively on the job at hand. Whether that is a prerequisite to becoming a driver or whether being a driver hardens one to think that way is debatable. It is hard for any of us to understand, but supposedly many drivers actually wanted to crawl back into their cars and race just moments after it had been confirmed that Dan Wheldon had been fatally injured in the horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

As foreign as it seems to those of us that watch this sport from our living rooms and from the stands, that is the way racers think. It is how they are wired. I don’t claim to know which drivers or how many were in favor of racing after all of our fears had been confirmed, but it didn’t surprise me at all. To my knowledge, this is the first time an IndyCar race has been cancelled due to a driver fatality. The 1964 Indianapolis 500 was red-flagged after a fiery crash took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald on Lap Two. After the announcement was made that Sachs had succumbed (MacDonald died later that afternoon), the drivers strapped in and raced for 198 more laps.

Whether the race should have been continued yesterday is not up to me to decide. These are different times from 1964, although it should be noted that the series decided to run the season-opening race at Homestead in 2006, after driver Paul Dana had been fatally injured in the morning warm-up. All I know is that it would have been extremely difficult for me to continue to race on Sunday – but then, I’m not a racer.

If you follow this sport long enough, you come to expect what happened yesterday. That’s not to say that you ever get used to it. If you do get used to it, you probably need to have your pulse taken. This sport is unique. Unlike most other sports, this is a sport where death is always a real possibility. We fans know it and more importantly, the drivers know it. Yet they make the choice to race, anyway

Death affects different people in different ways. I spent the better part of Sunday night on the phone with many people discussing the events of yesterday. Among the people I spoke with, I came across a varying range of emotions. First of all, everyone was very saddened – but the different reactions among the different ages of those I spoke with, was telling. The ages of those I talked with, ranged from early twenties to late seventies. The common thread was that the older the person, the less surprised they were that this happened.

I believe that younger fans of this sport have been lulled into a false sense of complacency that this is a safe sport that we follow. The cars and tracks have become decidedly safer over the past several years, but please don’t ever think that there is little danger in this sport. Eddie Cheever said it best yesterday when he said that no matter what innovations come about, they will never remove all of the danger from auto racing. In the entire last decade, IndyCar racing suffered only two fatalities – Tony Renna in 2003 and Paul Dana in 2006. In the decade of the nineties, there were a total of five – Jovy Marcelo, Scott Brayton, Jeff Krosnoff, Gonzalo Rodríguez and Greg Moore.

When I was growing up in the sixties, the sport averaged more than that in one season. Every year, the program for the Indianapolis 500 featured a “Memorial Page” devoted to all of the drivers who had lost their lives since the previous Indianapolis 500. Does that make what happened yesterday any easier to accept? No, but it does give me a different perspective than some of the younger fans of today.

Dan Wheldon was the favorite driver of my twenty-two year-old son, Trey, who hasn’t followed this sport much for the past few years. He was there when Wheldon won Indianapolis in 2005 and he got to meet and chat with him later that summer in Nashville. When he learned of the events of yesterday, his immediate reaction was that he can never watch another race. When I told him how frequent fatalities were in the sixties, he asked me how I could ever follow such a sport growing up.

Trey is not alone in his thinking. When popular driver Pat O’Connor was fatally injured on the opening lap of the 1958 Indianapolis 500, many loyal fans of the sport said they would never return to the Speedway after that – and they didn’t. This will happen again, now that such a popular driver has reminded us how dangerous this sport is. Some won’t be able to handle it and that’s completely understandable.

It has been a popular phrase to use that “Dan Wheldon died doing what he loved” as if that is supposed to be of some comfort to those left behind. I once heard Mario Andretti say that hearing that comment used to infuriate him. He said he did what he did because he loved it, but he didn’t want to die doing it. Drivers love what they do. They weigh the odds and proceed knowing the risks. We admire those that push the limit knowing the consequences, but unless they have a fatalistic approach – I don’t think any of them wish to die pursuing their craft. That applied to Dan Wheldon as well.

Yesterday was a sad day for many reasons. Selfishly, we’ll note that a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 has been taken from us. We’ll lament that the sport of IndyCar racing has lost probably its best ambassador and that one of the best drivers in the sport is no longer with us. But the saddest part of yesterday’s tragic events is for the family of Dan Wheldon.

As hard as it seems today, our sport will move on. There will be another Indianapolis 500 next year and the new cars that Dan Wheldon had worked so hard developing will compete. We will miss him next year, but there will be races. But what about his family? His parents, his siblings, his widow Susie and his two young sons, Sebastian and Oliver, will somehow have to pick up the pieces.

One of the many unfortunate ramifications of the events of yesterday was evident on Twitter last night. The internet gives a lot of us a voice that we didn’t have just a few years ago, Unfortunately, there are some who take advantage of such a platform for the wrong reasons. Among the many Dan Wheldon tributes I saw on Twitter on Sunday night, there were a few who chose to lay the blame for what happened yesterday at the feet of Randy Bernard for issuing the $5 million dollar challenge that Wheldon was pursuing. For the handful of people that think this way, Dan Wheldon was honored to have that opportunity. It was just a horrible set of circumstances that unfolded yesterday. Do we have to have someone to blame?

The crash has been replayed over and over on every news outlet from several angles. Those that don’t understand why we follow racing are saying that we only want to see the crashes and we saw a good one yesterday. I got no thrill from watching that crash yesterday. When I saw it live, my heart sank. I didn’t know who was involved but I thought it highly unlikely that all of the drivers involved could have survived. It was too terrible looking. Last night, I spoke to several that said they just looked away whenever the replays came on. They couldn’t bear to watch, doing away with the theory that we love to see the crashes.

I did watch it several times, not out of morbid curiosity, but to see what could have been done differently. I have come to my own conclusion that there is nothing that Dan Wheldon or anyone could have done different, short of not trying to race. It just happened. I don’t mean to trivialize it at all, but in a dangerous sport like the one we choose to follow – bad things sometimes happen.

There are those that are already clamoring for leaving the high-banked ovals to the stock cars of NASCAR, saying that IndyCars are simply too fast for these tracks. There may be some merit to that argument at a later time, but not right now. The appropriate time will come to re-examine a lot of things, but that day is not today.

I debated long and hard about what to write for today. There are many blogs and articles that have paid tribute to a great driver that are far more eloquent than anything I could have written. Instead, I chose to focus on the unique sport that Dan Wheldon loved and the unusual perspective that all of its drivers possess. I hope that the sport of IndyCar racing will learn from the tragic events of yesterday and grow to be better because of them.

May God bless the family of Dan Wheldon.

George Phillips

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33 Responses to “The Sport That Dan Wheldon Loved”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Thanks George…

  2. Thank you, George. God bless you and yours.

  3. Well done George. Thank you.

    As I said over by Bill, I believe it would be misguided anger to blame this tragedy on Randy and the promotion. Randy will need some kind words in the days to come.

    I’m old enough to remember the many racing deaths of the fifties and sixties, many of which I witnessed. With limited newspaper and TV coverage then, fans did not get to know much about the drivers other than what we witnessed on the track. Seeing Dan with his wife and children you just knew he was a great husband and father in addition to being a fine racer.

    I will miss his infectious grin and quick wit. He was a lovable rascal and a delight to be around. I’m just sitting here in the dark trying to process this. My thoughts and prayers are for his family. We will miss you Dan.

  4. Thanks George. I think you said it well.

  5. Jim Gallo Says:

    Thank you George.
    RIP Dan Wheldon.

  6. Good one George. As a youngster of 12 I was devestated to hear about the passing of Jim Clark and making sense of that as well as experienceing the tragic crash of Eddie Sachs as an 8 year-old was mind-blowing. As you pointed out, in 1964 the race restarted and I saw AJ Foyt grab his second Iny 500 victory. Dan was a special person and I recognized that immediatly. He will be terribly missed, but those rear bumpers behind the rear wheels of the car that HE tested this past summer seem to be a great call and if that will stop a car from getting airborn then I am glad that they are there. Again, though, you can make this sport as safe as possibly but tragic loss of life has always and will always be in the mix of this sport that we follow.

  7. Dan Wheldon was my 12-yr old son’s favorite driver. Kids process grief differently than adults, but he’s taking this hard. We talked about the fact that if you’re going to be a race fan you have to accept that this kind of thing can happen. We’ll go to the 500 next year and be just as thrilled as we always are, but he learned a hard lesson.

    I’m leaving work early today to pick him up and go out to IMS. I just want to us to spend some time there.

    • Brian,
      I was all of 10 when I heard (on the radio) Sid Collins eulogy of Eddie Sachs. It was my introduction to the dark side of racing, and throughout the rest of the 60’s it seemed we lost a lot of drivers (Bobby Marshman, Chuck Rhodee, Jim Clark, Don Branson, Johnny Thompson, and probably a few others I am not remembering.)

      We may have gotten “spoiled” in this era of energy-dsitributing “fly apart” cars, and, while there have been injuries, fatalities have been rare. I found myself totally lost yesterday afternoon.

      When Sachs perished, I was just old enough to really understand what Sid Collins had said, and, hopefully, in the case of your son, he will grow to understand the ramifications of the sport we love.

      And, believe me, if I still lived in the Greater Indianapolis area, I’d be there too.

      George, very well done.

      • I was 10 years old when my favorite driver, Eddie Sachs, died. It hurts to this day when I remember. And this accident with Dan Weldon hurts just as much.

  8. In 1972, as a rookie sports writer covering my first Indianapolis 500 (we weren’t allowed to say Indy back then), I was able to interview Jim Hurtubise. When I got to where I felt comfortable to ask him, I asked why he kept racing after having been so badly burned in his crash some years earlier. His reply was “I could get hurt or killed working in a factory or doing other things I don’t enjoy. I love to race.”
    I know Dan Wheldon didn’t want to leave his family behind yesterday. I also know he was really relishing the challenge he felt privileged to pursue. Until that terrible moment, he was having one of the best days of his life.

  9. You did yourself proud on this . Well done. This one hurts a little more for me because my son and I had such a high opinion of Dan as a person as well as a race driver.

    You could see this wreck coming. I don’t know if the track itself is the problem. It will get the blame. So will the technology (speed). However, I think it is the lack of experience of many of these drivers on ovals that played a bigger part. Some of these drivers were just reckless, and if you watch some of the 12 laps run again, you will notice it. Most of the best drivers were trying to stay low (including Dan) to try to avoid what many of them feared would be coming. The drivers after the race complained of driver agressiveness, but a better definition might be inexperience because many of the ride buyers have little to no oval experience.

    You have to wonder if its possible to have one league doing both the road and oval courses, or if two leagues (one road/one oval) is the better way to go. But as the drivers said, this will be discussed in its time.

    RIP Dan Weldon. May God bless your family.

  10. The Lapper Says:

    A lot of drivers that I have connected with in my life, as well as people from other walks of life and celebrity, have a personality and charisma that draws me as well as others to them. Dan had that and more and I found myself thinking of him as part of the family and from the position I enjoyed seeing his carer and family life take off. He seemed to enjoy sharing his professional career with us so today I feel as if I lost a friend and in some regard I have.

  11. Thanks for this, George. Well said.

  12. Beautifully put. We’re all grieving, but Dan’s family will never leave this behind. Prayers and thoughts are with them, as well as Randy Bernard. I’m sure he’s blaming himself in all this. Had yesterday gone well, the challenge would have been an admired bit of marketing. That it didn’t go well is no one’s fault. It just happened. Hope that everyone in the Indycar family is doing okay. It was a long night on Twitter with many of you. Dan will be missed.

  13. Simona Fan Says:

    Thanks George for your perspective and wisdom. I’ve got so many thoughts I don’t know what to do with. I guess I’ll leave them here, if for no other reason than to get them off my mind.

    1. The anti-launch bumpers, which many (including myself) didn’t like, now sound like absolute necessities, whether the new car is faster or not.

    2. Cheever or Goodyear made a great comment about the catch fences. They haven’t been improved in 60 years. Maybe it’s time to look at improving them so they aren’t so grabby.

    3. People had forgotten that racing, open wheel racing especially, is dangerous. Complacency breeds apathy. While no one wanted this tragedy, Dan’s death will lead to more people paying attention to the series he so loved.

    4. ABC could not have done a worse job covering the accident. From missing the announcement from Randy, to being unable to confirm who was on the helicopter, to failing to show Dan’s in-car camera. The worst was 2 1/2 hours after the accident still being unable to identify cars. “And ANOTHER car is airborne over him.” Um, that’s Will Power, and it’s significant. For 2 hours I was watching the wrong car thinking it was Wheldon. Bad day for ABC all around.

    5. It’s too early to tell what this will do to IndyCar. After Dale Sr’s death, NASCAR built a tank for their drivers to drive. They removed the danger in stock car racing and now the drivers wreck each other intentionally at 180 mph (e.g. Carl Edwards). The racing is unwatchable and the ratings are in decline. Overreacting in this situation (i.e. removing all the ovals, enclosing the cockpit, reducing the speeds) could be just as bad as under-reacting. Fortunately they have the entire off-season to make prudent adjustments.

    6. At the “victory” banquet this week, Dario should be presented with the Wheldon Cup. It’s a new trophy; let’s name it after Dan. Everyone should wanting to be an IndyCar Series Champion should be competing for the Wheldon Cup.

    Thanks again, George for providing a place for us to express our thoughts.

  14. What probably hurts the average fan the most, George, is knowing that Dan’s future was looking really good. He’d had the most time under his belt in the new car, plus he was signed to drive for Team Andretti. Being out of the car obviously didn’t remove anything from his “game”, as his Indy 500 win and his moving steadily through the pack yesterday showed. Next year was supposed to have been HIS year: The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion with the most experience with the new car. It was supposed to be his season for the taking.

    And then yesterday happened.

    None of us will hurt as much as his family, of course. My God… his kids are so young. I have clothes, books… even a blasted computer mouse that’s older than them! And now they have no father. But at the same time, it still hurts us as fans. We may not have known Dan like his family did, in the way that his family did, but the aspect we *did* know we so very much loved and appreciated. Sure, we only saw him as the race driver, the occasional TV host on Versus. But that was a beautiful aspect to witness.

    This hurts in so many ways. In too many ways.

  15. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    Well said, George. Emotions have been all over the place the past 18 hours and your grounded approach is well received. The sport hasn’t been rocked like this since the deaths of Jim Clark or Mark Donohue. Some will point to Greg Moore, but he was a rising star. Dan Wheldon was already a major star.

    To blame Randy Bernard for what happened is absurd. As painful as it is to admit, these things happen in racing. Shame on fans or drivers that ever lose sight of that.

  16. carburetor Says:

    Thank you for your perspective, George. This was a very tragic loss. My wife, who is a relatively new fan of this sport, had quickly determined Dan was her favorite driver several years ago, That was only magnified by his win at Indianapolis this year, and the classy way he conducted himself. For those of us who hadn’t the opportunity to meet him in person, the glimpse we got of him in the Versus booth this year was terrific. We couldn’t decide, for selfish reasons, whether we wanted him more to drive or to be in the broadcast booth–he was superb at both. It has been a very dark moment in our household for sure.

    I knew people would find some way to try and blame Randy Bernard–which is totally absurd. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, as well as the Wheldon family. RIP Dan Wheldon.

  17. Savage Henry Says:

    It is ironic that the car Dan has been testing for the last few months had safety elements that could have saved his life, had he been driving it.

    I’m still kind of numb. I’m taking this harder than I thought I would since I knew that eventually someone else would be killed in an Indycar race. Maybe its the fact that it was Wheldon, who was such a great driver and was poised to become the face of the sport next year. Maybe it’s that I came to believe Indycar racing was safer than it is after watching Conway, Miera, and Kannan survive accidents that I couldn’t imagine someone surviving.

    Anyway, my thoughts and prayers are with the Wheldon family.

  18. the fact that Indycar racing has become so much safer makes this sucker punch that much more unbelievable. I blame no one except twisted and unforgivable fate for this tragedy. I will miss Dan Weldon and be angry about the unfairness of his death. I grieve for Dan’s wife and children. I will support any changes that tries to keep these drivers safe and I will continue to be a fan of Indycar racing. I’m so sorry this happened.

  19. billytheskink Says:

    George, as usual, you seem to say what needs to be said as well as anyone. Especially your well worded paragraph about how now is not the time to point fingers.

    Times like this have always made fans, crews, owners, and racers alike look to justify their interest in, and even the existence of, this sport we all love so much. Justify it to others, yes, but more than anything, we look to justify it to ourselves.
    But, we must do what we have always done, use tragedy to make this sport safer and better than ever.

  20. james t suel Says:

    Well said as always George. It was a sad day for racing ! Iam 61 years old and have seen many days like this in our sport. I was a stuned 13 year old in may of 1964 ,when Eddy SACKS and Dave MCDONALD CAR EXPLODED IN FRONT OF ME AT INDIANAPOLIS ! I KNEW THEN THAT THIS SPORT IS NOT A CHILDS GAME, AS THE OTHERS ARE.GODS SPEED DAN WELDON!!

  21. May Dan Wheldon rest in peace and his family be comforted while grieving.

  22. I think I am going to be sick. The “sweeping under the rug” of Dan Wheldon’s death boggles the mind.

    This was not some noble racing incident, this was gross negligence on the part of IndyCar plain and simple.

    Dan died in vain. This race on this track with this number of cars (in violation of IndyCar’s own rulebook) should have never have taken place.

    • Simona Fan Says:

      How someone can post something as ignorant and asinine as Gary posted 28 hours after Dan’s death is beyond me. No one is sweeping his death under the rug. It was in fact a racing accident. And it really wouldn’t have mattered if there were 33 or 34 cars on the track during the accident. They will, in time, evaluate what can be done to prevent cars from going into the catch fence. The safety features of the new car will certainly address some of that. That discussion will come in due time. For now, keep your slandering of the dead and your baseless finger pointing to yourself.

      • Oilpressure Says:

        Unfortunately, the tasteless nuts are already coming out of the woodwork. Someone called me on my way to work this morning telling me about the Today Show portraying what happened as INDYCAR daring Wheldon and setting him up to die. After arriving at work, I had someone else e-mail a Wall Street Journal article that lays blame entirely on CEO Randy Bernard and INDYCAR. Of course, the article is filled with so many errors that their credibility is gone by the first paragraph. Unfortunately, non-racing fans who don’t know the difference are reading this and believing it. Normally, the WSJ is a reputable publication (which makes this all the more damaging) but they need to stick to what they know. This is irresponsible journalism at its worst. – GP

        • George, I agree. As a former motor racing journalist, I agree that this event is news that is properly reported by media that normally pay little attention to INDYCAR. However they should only report facts and not opinions. Opinions should only be presented in mainstream media in op/ed pages or time slots, and then only be people who actually know enough about the subject to offer an informed opinion.
          There are people wanting to assign blame. Dan Wheldon specifically made the decision to compete in this race under the special rules which allowed him to compete. Several other drivers also made specific deals to compete in this race. Most of the drivers had contracts to compete in the series races, of which this was one.
          Any or all of the 34 drivers could have said “I choose not to drive today.” Would there have been consequences to making that decision? Most likely. Would they have been fatal? No.
          The responsibility rested with each of those 34 drivers who chose to participate Sunday.

      • I stand by my words. I have been a autoracing fan for years but never have I seen a series ignore driver safety in the name of “the show” like IndyCar did this weekend. Why did they put more cars on the track than the rule book allowed? For “the show”, because the race was going to be on ABC and IndyCar needed to liven things up a bit. Well, we all know how that went.

    • What evidence can you provide for your statement that the causes of Dan Wheldon;s death are being “swept under the rug”? Blame, if you must insist on placing it so soon after the accident, is far from “plain and simple” as you suggest.

      At some level I would guess that most of us are angry as well as saddened by Dan’s untimely death. That’s normal, but most people have chosen on this day to simply express their admiration for Dan, their overwhelming sadness at what happened, and their concern for Dan’s family. An investigation will take place and I believe it will be open and transparent.

      Dan died an untimely death, but by no means did he die in vain.

  23. Great post, George. My thoughts are with the Wheldon family.

  24. Its still hard for me to accept this. :'( I’ll miss you Dan.

  25. After Bernard made the announcement that we all knew was coming my girlfriend of 6 months and I hugged, cried a bit, and she said “Six months ago I didn’t know who he was.”
    I woke up in the middle of the night and my first thought was of Dan and I couldn’t sleep after that and he was never far from my thoughts all day.
    Lots of blame to go around. Indy Car deserves plenty for the circumstances of the race. Did Dan not see it in front of him or was he going for a hole when he flew in after so many were slowing down?
    All I know is rthat right now, thirty hours later I am still very sad. Thanks George.

  26. Megan K. Bickel Says:

    Today I’m finally able to start reading some of the blogs and, as always, you did a wonderful job, George. You always have a unique perspective and one I value a great deal. I’ve cried for days over the personal loss for his family and friends. Taking a little time to look at it from the history of the sport he loved is interesting and necessary if we are to continue being race fans. Thank you.

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