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Sunday, October 16, 2011

No blame to lay for Wheldon death; just sadness for all who did (and didn't) know him

I never knew Dan Wheldon.

While I covered some Indycar back in the day, I never had the pleasure of meeting the man – who by all accounts was the kind of guy you couldn’t help but like.

But his death saddens me in a way that might seem strange to some people.

On one level, it saddens me like it does anyone else with a heart. This man was 33 years old, had a wife and two children, and was just beginning his life – when you consider that people can live to be 100 or more. Sure he did a lot in that time, winning two Indy 500s and competing with the best of the auto racing world, but that should have only been Act 1 of his life.

Acts 2, 3 and beyond should have been the even more important parts of his life – growing old with his family and watching his boys become men. It’s always sad when someone goes, but if they’ve lived a full life it’s easier to accept. There’s nothing easy to accept here, and his family will never be the same without him.

But going beyond the basic human connection, I am particularly sad in this because Dan Wheldon was a racecar driver, and the racing community is one of the tightest in the world. While the world wonders why we are fans of cars going in circles, all race fans feel a connection to each other because they understand why and don’t have to ask that question.
Drivers, to us fans, are the bravest of the brave, because they are the ones capable enough of doing this daredevil activity for a living and providing us the entertainment we seek on the racetrack. Even if we never meet them in real life, we feel like we know them.

I never even had a one-on-one conversation with Dale Earnhardt Sr., but when he died I was covering the Daytona 500, and the story of his death was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life. Because the reality was that I DID know him. I watched him every week racing on TV and sometimes in person, and he was someone I had a connection to.

I was similarly upset when other NASCAR drivers I never met – such as Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin – passed away tragically due to on-track accidents. “Why would you care?” some might wonder “You didn’t know them.” … But I did care, and I care now that Dan Wheldon has died.

In Wheldon’s case, my connection is even less, as I’m not even a huge Indycar fan and usually stick to NASCAR, but I am no less sad. I watched him race regularly and recognized him as a talented driver who seemed like a decent person from his interviews.

If you had asked me Sunday morning to name my favorite Indycar drivers, he probably wouldn’t have even made the list. But that doesn’t change the sinking feeling I got when I saw that horrific accident in the Vegas Indycar race. It was the worst accident I have ever seen in motorsports (and I’ve watched a lot of it over the past 15 years or so), and my first thought was that somebody was probably dead.

The longer the wait dragged on without hearing about Wheldon’s condition, the worse the prognosis was in my mind. If he was OK, they would have said something. Silence is usually a bad thing in this situation.

At Daytona in 2001, I was in the midst of writing a cheery story about Michael Waltrip’s breakthrough win in the top NASCAR division, and the guy next to me in the media center leaned over and said: “I heard Earnhardt’s dead”. I wanted to dismiss it as rumor, but that’s not the kind of rumor that’s going to turn out to be false most of the time. Sure enough, a couple hours later, NASCAR President Mike Helton made it official, and I can still picture him up on the stage uttering the horrible words; “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt”.

The situation today was no doubt equally terrible for the Indycar community, who had to sit around for two hours and await word on the fate of Wheldon – knowing that the worst was possible.
The emotions on their face, the tears that flowed as they did those five moving tribute laps in honor or Wheldon while Amazing Grace played, shows that amid all the bravado and smack talk of racing, these people are no different than the rest of us … with the exception of their ability to drive racecars really really fast.

There will no doubt be discussion about the accident and what could have been done to prevent it. Was the $5 million bonus offer a gimmick that turned horribly bad due to too many cars being on the track? Can anything be done to improve the safety of the walls and/or catch fences at these tracks? … etc., etc., etc.

Personally, I’m not assigning any blame, not to Indycar, not to the driver who started the initial accident, or anyone else. Racers know that anything can happen on the track, and while no one is ever prepared for death they are among the few professions who know that it’s actually possible every time they show up to work. (Though most, obviously, keep that thought far from the front of their heads while actually competing in a race.)

Ironically, Dan Wheldon had been one of the main drivers working on improving the new 2012 Indycar models, which vow to be much safer than the cars driven in 2011.

No, there is no headline here about who should be in trouble for all this. There is only sadness.

Sadness from the Wheldon family, who have lost a father, husband, child, brother at far too young of an age.

Sadness from the tight Indycar community, who will no longer have Wheldon around to enjoy their weekends with on and off the track.

And sadness from fans of motorsports around the world, who most likely never met the man, but still feel like they have lost a family member today.

R.I.P. Dan Wheldon.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

THIS ARTICAL was wonderful. this is so sad. GOD BLESS HIS FAMILY.

October 17, 2011 at 12:29 PM 
Anonymous Bennett said...

Gotta tell you, brother. This one hurt me a whole lot. You were the one who called me at our place and told me Adam Petty died, I did the same thing for you with Kenny Irwin. We were there together when Earnhardt died. This one, for some reason, hurts a bit more.

I've tended to watch open wheel a little more fervently than closed wheel since I got involved with actually racing myself a decade ago. I've sat back, amazed, intrigued, and - deep down - terrified at what the dallara chassis has become at 1.5 mile ovals - wheel to wheel action that NASCAR could only dream of. My heart lies with NASCAR but, for my new racing friends, I tell them to sit down and watch Indycar if they want to see oval racing at its finest.

But this was too much.

Like you, Dan Wheldon wasn't my favourite driver. That honour has gone to TK since Fernandez and the elder Rahal have hung it up. But after TK, and an affinity for Dario, I would root for the "good guys" of the sport. The non-Australians (personal choice.) Wheldon was always right there. A true champion, I cheered for his amazing victory this year at Indy. I felt that I KNEW him because they threw him behind the mic for commentary.

I feel that I lost somebody close to me.

I've been watching racing exactly as long as you and, likewise, I've never seen an accident like that, where I got that chill up my torso and said "somebody's dead". The closest was Bodine in the Truck race at Daytona. But instead of chalking it up as "that's racing", I feel that the rulebook needs to be changed. If IRL insists on racing at 1.5 mile ovals with no lifting, as they have insisted upon doing, then they need to open up the specs and allow more separation between the haves and have nots. We don't need to see these cars three wide, wheel to wheel, lap after lap at 225 mph. Closeless does not equate exciting racing in all cases. Talladega in NASCAR is an exception - they wreck, and they live. Indycar, you get airborne, you may likely die. F1 has some of the most exciting races in the world and they are separated by 15 plus car-lengths. The cars are fragile, the pitstops are intense, lower the reliability and allow the teams that can run up front to do so, even at the expense of their equipment. In any case, get the cars apart or get the hell out of the 1.5 ovals.

I'm crushed by Wheldon's passing. He's my age, had everything to live for, like me, and he's gone. Some say he died doing what he loved, but if Dan Wheldon could be asked that question today he would say he would rather die doing what, as a husband and father, he truly loved - watching his children grow up, get married, have children of their own, and pass away at an old age surrounded by those he loved.

I love racing, I love the risk, the excitement, the courage, the competition. I no longer love going 225 MPH three wide into a corner with no bumpers or roof. Watching that has become less fandom and more morbid voyuerism. Goodbye Dan Wheldon. It did NOT have to be like this.

October 17, 2011 at 5:44 PM 
Blogger Matt Myftiu said...

Well said, Bennett ... I'm predicting a lot of change in Indycar next year on the ovals. It has to happen or the drivers shouldn't go on the track.

October 17, 2011 at 8:58 PM 

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