16 October, 2011

Dan Wheldon

I'm gutted right now, far beyond what I ever have been while watching races. Ever since my life began to weave together with motor sport a few years ago I knew a day like today would happen. It's inevitable in our sport, regardless of what we believe to be leaps and bounds in safety measures, yet it's still impossible to accept.

I watched the start of the race today hopeful that there would be a fantastic battle between Dario Franchitti and Will Power to decide the championship. More than anything, though, I was really hoping Dan Wheldon would come all the way from last in the field to win the race and the $5 million that awaited a lucky fan and him. It was a ploy of GoDaddy to offer Wheldon this challenge because he still lacked a full-time ride this year or next, and he eagerly agreed.

He got a great start, already up a few positions when it happened. There was nothing he could do given his position on track and the punishingly fast speeds the cars traveled. Fifteen cars in all were collected, but Dan was in the most serious shape. The ominous yellow tarp draped over his car after they extracted him did not imply anything directly other than the severity of the accident.

As minutes turned to hours with no word on his condition, everyone feared for the worst. Pictures online showed the roll hoop on his car completely missing after he struck the catch fence. I've never seen anything like this, as that's often the strongest part of the car. The mood grew more somber, but as the shock of the accident was starting to subside, the anxiety of not knowing turned to inconsolable sorrow.

Randy Bernard, who dreamed up the idea of this season-ending 'world championship,' quickly got to the point and announced that we had lost Dan Wheldon. "Unsurvivable injuries" were cited, and the words slowly sunk in.

Since I've followed this fantastic sport of racing, many have died worldwide. It's undoubtedly a dangerous sport, but never before had I been apart of something like this. I've never seen a driver killed during a race live on TV. Moreover, I've never lost a driver of whom I was an enormous fan and respected greatly. Part of me knew that I would feel it someday, but I never dreamed that it would be today.

I watched Wheldon win at the Iowa Speedway years ago, and I cheered for him every year in the Indianapolis 500. I wanted to go watch him test next year's car, but I wasn't able to do so. I wanted to meet him when I went to a race this year. He was a close friend to another of my favorite drivers, Tony Kanaan, and it crushed me to watch him weep openly on the pit wall before the news had officially broken. I knew, but I certainly did not want to believe.

Even hearing Randy Bernard's words I still couldn't believe it. A painful twang hit me in that moment which I have only experienced a handful of times. Dan Wheldon is gone.

As we struggle to cope with this loss, we not only feel the pain of his passing but also the shocking realization of how real our sport is. We lose sight of the danger in it all, even though we acknowledge it in passing whenever the cars get close on track or brush the wall. "I'm glad he's okay," we say, or "That could have been a really bad one." Yet we never really grasp that the danger is so close. This comes from a sense of security we've come to know in the last decade. Racing drivers don't die in crashes. Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 came as a freak accident resulting from a crash that didn't look that bad on the outside. People shook their heads in disbelief but knew that he liked open-faced helmets and loose belts. Should that have killed him? No. When Zanardi's legs were torn off and he didn't die, people felt that we dodged a bullet. Or when Kenny Brack looked like he was killed in Texas years ago (another race I watched live), people were astounded that he survived. Think about Robert Kubica in Canada when he limped away with a sprained ankle, or when Felipe Massa was literally centimeters from being killed in Hungary. There hasn't been a shortage of close calls.

For NASCAR, their safety measures and car designs have ensured that drivers have remained relatively safe since 2001, and I thank God for that. Indy hasn't been so lucky with their greatly increased speeds and open cockpits, but despite Paul Dana's death at Homestead Miami, even the most vicious wrecks were escaped. Will Power can attest to that, as he both came back from severe injuries to challenge for championships and lost a championship today in another horrendous crash.

Today we are reminded that life is short (in Dan's case, a mere 33 years) but that in such a brief time so much can be accomplished if we invest ourselves the way Dan Wheldon did in those dreams. He wanted nothing more than to have a full-time ride so he could do what he loved, and ultimately he died doing it. Some drivers say they want to go that way, and I honestly don't know if Dan was that type or not. Because of the love that he had for his wife and two sons, part of me says he would put their lives and well-being before his own. Who knows?

One thing is certain, though, and that is the fact that we were lucky to know Dan, to share in his successes and see the humor and genuineness of his personality. We were lucky to hear the
commentators speak to him before the race, to hear the joy in his voice at his opportunity to help Sam Schmidt, please his sponsors and help countless others with the $5 million he was trying to win. I had no idea that would be the last time we would ever hear his voice, but I'm thankful we got to be a part of that joy and hope as he faced the limitless possibilities before him. Dan was a great guy, and I'm so proud that every driver on the IndyCar circuit will benefit from his safety testing of next year's car. It's only fitting he generously helped the sport from which he had been shut out this year.

Our sport can be a painful one, accompanied by tragedy, death, glory and thrill. Days like today will happen, but I thank God they don't happen very often. Every race I watch I'm silently grateful that we can go through a season expecting that every driver starting the season will finish. I'm so glad that we no longer have to worry about each crash trapping a driver in a flame-engulfed car. But in the end we must realize that our sport will always be dangerous. The human body can only take so much no matter how strong the car is, and as long as our sport is open cockpit and open wheel, there is still the possibility of this happening. It's something the pioneers of racing knew very well, and it's through their sacrifices and triumphs, just like those of Dan Wheldon, that our sport will continue to grow and honor their memories. It will be tough when next season begins, but we'll get through it. Just like watching the movie "Senna", through tragedy and loss we learn to appreciate what we have and strive to retain it. Wheldon did that every year he raced, and he wore those emotions on his sleeve. God bless him. He will be missed.

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