For millions of people in North American and a multitude of other motorsport viewers throughout the world, weekends between February to November involves the spectacle of four-wheeled pieces of complex modern technology rushing in competition. Myself included in the sizable collective of auto racing enthusiasts, the sport has become an all-inclusive group realizing the battles and intrinsic pressures some individuals press in acquiring the power and glory of motorsport mastery. Witnessing great auto racing moments and absorbing intimate relationships with automobiles immediately makes me recognize this sport as a favourite exhibition.
On the United States Memorial Day weekend of this year, one of the best motor racing stories I had witnessed panned out as a one-off underdog effort Bryan Herta Autosport was wheeled by INDYCAR champion Dan Wheldon. A British open wheel driver who had compiled 15 wins on the IZOD INDYCAR circuit, Wheldon found himself looked over as a full-time series driver taking the ride for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 unsure for his future in racing. Starting 6th at the beginning of the event in the #98 car, the race played out like clockwork for the orange, white and black car steered by Dan Wheldon. In second place on the final lap, leader JR Hildebrand’s costly misjudgement of the fourth and final corner resulted in what is well known in sports as a “Cinderella story”. Used to seeing super teams of Penske Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing taking a majority of race victories through the past several season, the presence of Dan Wheldon and the Bryan Herta Autosport’s #98 race on the winning stage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought forth every great qualify of motorsports. A exciting finish in the final seconds of the Indy 500, a winning effort from a team that would not bow to odds and finally a storied driver celebrating victory with his wife and two young children. In a response in post-race for how he would celebrate the race, the family man Dan Wheldon commented, “I’m taking my kids to Disney, taking my kids to Disney. It’s just an incredible day.”
Observing the life around motorsport for all the glory at the Indy 500, I would have never known this weekend’s IZOD INDYCAR Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway were lead such a dramatic shift in emotions. In what was suppose to be a season finale extravaganza called the IZOD INDYCAR World Championship, a crash occurring on turn 1 at lap 12 has become a haunting image so many of us have seen already. Watching the race, I remembered the sight of smoke through an in-car camera view immediately causing me to feel chills. I have witnessed many crashes in auto racing over 15 years but very few have given me such a prompt, eerie feeling. As 34 cars circled a 1.5-mile oval at speeds over 200 miles per hour, the field was left at peril as one car spun. Within a split-second, one spinning car turned into a scene of carbon fiber race car carnage. With 15 cars swept up in this near instant mega accident, many drivers including Will Power, Paul Tracy and JR Hildebrand were violently caught in the wreckage.
As most drivers left their Indy cars following the crash, the condition of the recent Indy 500-winning driver Dan Wheldon was not communicated. Racing as part of a promotion for a 5-million dollar prize to be shared with a registered motorsport fan, the contest was of no concern to fans and everyone part of the IZOD INDYCAR Series as they all waited to hear news on Wheldon. With a medical helicopter lifting the driver to a near-by hospital, there was a moment on the race track where safe crews covered what remained of the #77 car Dan Wheldon was driving. Having watched serious crashes before, seeing a wrecked vehicle covered on track is a telltale sign of something gruesome. Hoping to hear some sort of good news about the Brit, the IZOD INDYCAR announced roughly two hours after the crash that Dan Wheldon had died at the age of 33.
Upon hearing that news, I like many others drew to sadness thinking for the loss of the driver, husband and father. Through every image shown during a long red flag period on ABC television broadcast, the sight of grief-stricken crewmembers and drivers was powerful. In memory of the lost racer, a three-wide drive by 19 cars around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway accompanied was the touching tribute of putting Wheldon’s 77 car number on the scoring pylon. There was an unmistakable sense of sorrow in the air as five final laps were run in Dan Wheldon’s honour before cancelling the event. However, as tough as it was to the drivers to stage this tribute only moments after losing their competitor and friend, the laps in memorial served as a more last memory of the tragic Las Vegas than the massive crash.
Having watched motorsports for 15 years, the loss of Dan Wheldon is an unforgettable situation. I’ve seen the accidents that took the life of open wheel racer Greg Moore and of NASCAR 7-time champion Dale Earnhardt. While I long-admired those drivers and continue to hold them special as race fan, I can’t say any auto racing driver passing in competition is any more or less impacting.
As soon as the news was delivered on Wheldon‘s death, I thought of his wife and their two young children who mourns a great man made bigger off the race track. I send my heartfelt sympathies to those individuals as well as the Wheldon family and friends who lost someone close.
Planned, organized tributes from fellow drivers and sport dignitaries bring light the community track competitors build around themselves. A matrix of human emotions that turned so somber on the announcement of Dan Wheldon’s death began shedding tears and quickly wanting to share condolences. Selfless, some drivers including Tony Kanaan (speaking prior to the formal announcement of Wheldon’s passing) even voiced an apology to race fans that the race was unable to continue as the entire series awaited word on their motorsport comrade. In a way, Dan Wheldon’s spirit will always remain alive in this racing family.
With more than a day passing now since the loss of the 2005 INDYCAR Series champion and two-time Indy 500 race winner, the media chatter is swiftly turning from bidding condolences. Operating under thoughts, angry concerns as well as questioning points out too many race cars on a crowded, fast track, the use of a race promotion for putting Wheldon in a car and the place of open wheel racing on ovals have become talking points. Perhaps an understandable phenomenon as people wish to claim some understanding and later gain some purpose from the current pains of losing a great human being, I personally find these concerns coming too soon to Dan Wheldon’s passing. Feeling as a person and media member is to account this desperately emotional time, in a matter of time I’ll have to join to analysis of the 15-car crash. Maybe these questions will receive answers greater memorializing the driver’s life with a continuing consideration of protecting the late Dan Wheldon’s racing rivals.
In Dan Wheldon‘s words when signing with Target Chip Ganassi Racing after has 2005 INDYCAR title year, the driver commented, “You know, I’m not in this business to come in second, third or fourth; I’m in it to win. That’s why I do it. I love to win, and obviously I love to challenge myself.” Winning on the track as well as in life, anyone who Dan Wheldon’s 33 years of life has touched won having known the gentleman.
Information source: INDYCAR
Photo source: Chris Nagy, Daniel Incandela, INDYCAR, Jim Haines, Michael Levitt