The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Monday September 17, 2012
October 16, 2011 was meant to be a celebration of all that was good about IndyCar racing: a gripping conclusion to a tense, frenetic championship battle between the reigning champion Dario Franchitti and his chief protagonist, Australian Will Power, who had won six races on the year and was chasing his maiden IndyCar series title. A huge field of 34 cars, eight more than typically took to the track, would contest the finale that terrible day on the high banks of the mile-and-a-half Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the 18th and final race in a season that had seen events in Brazil, Canada and Japan.
Added to the excitement of the championship battle was a huge promotion with a well-known IndyCar series sponsor, which would award five million dollars (split with a fan) to any driver, not a series regular, who entered and won the race. Various drivers from NASCAR and other forms of motorsport were solicited, but in the end only Dan Wheldon took up the challenge. Wheldon had, of course been a series regular for a number of years but found himself without a ride for 2011. He had, that said, entered and won the Indy 500 when JR Hildebrand wrecked on the final corner of the final lap, a true underdog story that gave him hope for an encore. The race was, then, something of a showcase, a chance for Dan to show how talented he was and just why he belonged back in the sport full-time; a fact few drivers would have disputed.
Then, of course, came the 15-car wreck that tragically claimed Wheldon’s life with just 12 laps of the scheduled 200 in the books. I was there at the track that day and I wrote about it that night for this site. It was a piece I never thought I would have to write and hope fervently I never have to write again, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m glad I did. It serves to remind me, not that I would ever forget, what happened that fateful afternoon and in an infinitesimally small way it adds to the many tributes for a fellow Brit who was in so many ways larger than life.
In the souvenir program for the race, Wheldon was quoted on what it was like to drive at such breathtaking speeds and his response was indicative of the inherent dangers: “The car feels very much on the edge; it floats to some degree. To me, that feels normal.” He continued, “It’s a feeling that I love. It never scares me, but there is the appreciation of living on the edge and knowing what could happen if it should go wrong. It’s certainly an adrenaline rush.”
Such cryptic comments to preface the catastrophe that would follow. A horrible day at the track was, then, a reminder of just how serious a business driving a race car really is. Sure, with so many safety enhancements today, the risk is less than it was back in the day but it’s still there each and every lap.
This past Saturday night I was once again at the IndyCar Series season finale, this time at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway track in Fontana. With the mountains that surround the west coast track it did, just for a New York minute, remind me of the Las Vegas circuit when I first arrived. But that thought soon disappeared as I got into the pre-race ceremonies. Once again, the title was on the line. (For a full recap of the entire race, check out Toni Montgomery’s excellent article.)
As I mentioned in an earlier column this season, I’ve spent most of the last two years working with Verizon on their sponsorship of Will Power, so it was clear where my loyalties lay on this night. After two years of missing out on the final day of the season, the fervent hope was that finally Will would win the title his talent so richly deserved. Sadly for Will, it was not to be, but it’s hard to be anything but pleased for a driver like Ryan Hunter-Reay who has truly battled his way to the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing.
It was a point RHR was quite eager to recognize. “I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position or I could be in the position to win races… but then you go from winning races to competing for a championship, and that comes with another level of consistency,” said Hunter-Reay in a post-race interview. “That comes from the continuity and a team that believes in you, and a group like we have in the No. 28 car where things are working. You build on that year after year. That’s why we’re in this position now. So just never give up. It’s really nice to have this now to make that all come to fruition.”
Congratulations to RHR on his first championship and massive commiserations to Will Power on coming so close yet again. It was a measure of Power’s class and dignity in defeat that he went over to congratulate his rival as he celebrated his title. A couple of fans I overhead at the track, after the race had concluded, even remarked that they weren’t Will Power fans before the race, but they certainly were now based on his classy gesture. It says a lot about Will that he didn’t hesitate to do that and I truly hope next year will finally be his year. No driver deserves to win a title, you have to earn the right, but if ever there were a driver long overdue one, Power would be that guy. I’m sure he’ll regroup in the offseason and bounce back stronger than ever, ready to best the field in 2013.
And finally, given what was a sleep inducing race at Chicagoland on the NASCAR side the following day, it really was great to see such a fascinating race play out at a track that is typically somnolent when the stock cars take to it. Whichever championship contender you preferred, no logical fan could deny the MAVTV 500 was an utterly gripping race from start to finish. And given what had transpired at the end of the 2011 season, it was just fantastic that everyone got out of there safely. Long may that continue.
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