The Sport That Dan Wheldon Loved
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.