I came to Las Vegas to see a race: an open-wheel showcase that was the conclusion of the 2011 IndyCar season. It was set to be a fitting finale, one that was supposed to be about an epic battle between two protagonists – three-time and defending series champion Dario Franchitti versus the Australian contender Will Power, seeking his first ever IndyCar championship. Add in the “wild card,” a possible $5 million bonus offered to Dan Wheldon for winning that day and what was likely to be a glorious celebration seemed poised to unfold. It was the culmination of what had, until that point, been a phenomenal week for the sport of IndyCar racing here in Sin City.
Instead, what I witnessed was racing’s ultimate sin, a terrible tragedy through which there are no words to truly relate just how awful things were. Fate’s cruel hand dealt us the untimely passing of Wheldon, just 33 years of age, in a horrific, fiery 15-car wreck just 12 laps into the scheduled 150-lap distance.
Ernest Hemingway, who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, once wrote: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” It is an oft-used quote, particularly in the context of auto racing, and today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway I saw firsthand exactly the sentiment the great American writer meant.
As many of you will know, having attended races firsthand, be it NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One or NHRA, sometimes it takes awhile to catch up to what, exactly happened when you’re there. And so it was the case today. During the red flag following the massive wreck, I walked up into the stands and the mood of the fans was necessarily somber, with plenty of folks walking around holding shell-shocked expressions on their faces. At that stage, none of us knew what exactly had happened but it was not hard to work out it was serious; there was a feeling from many I spoke to that the race should be called off.
As the news started to flow through Twitter and fans watched replays on YouTube, the severity of the incident began to then crystallize in the minds of all those in attendance. The fact that Will Power had wrecked and Dario was the champion again became little more than an afterthought, now. The result of the race and of an epic championship battle, made across 17 races and four countries was rendered meaningless in a matter of moments.
What happened next could simply be described as some accelerated stages of grief: denial, anger, tears, and back again, fighting against your worst fears while expecting the inevitable to come. But once the news finally broke, about two hours after the initial incident, there was no time for the truth to really sink in. As IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard announced Wheldon’s passing, he explained that the drivers not involved in the wreck would run a slow, five-lap tribute to their fallen racer. It was a classy move, the right way to make the day more about Wheldon’s memory than a competition no one wanted to win – or even finish.
So, while time seemingly stopped I stood alongside the Penske team on the edge of the infield grass on pit road, right near to the captain Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric to watch the cars slowly circle the track in formation, three-wide in honor of their friend and fellow competitor. It was a hugely emotional moment for all the IndyCar family, with many of the drivers openly in tears as they strapped into their cars. Each time the field passed along the frontstretch, the entire crowd stood as one and applauded while Amazing Grace, accompanied by bagpipes, played over the track PA in Wheldon’s honor. What a fitting tribute to the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 champion, one that you can watch its entirety “here.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RycU_YwdKrU I humbly encourage you to do so.
As the engines died, the tribute complete the racetrack finally waved a different white flag; it caved into a place of mourning. Shock, sadness, and disbelief ran rampant as many of those connected to Wheldon could only offer official, written statements while privately overcome by grief.
“Dan Wheldon was a tremendous competitor, a great racer and an even better person,” said team owner Sam Schmidt. “It was an honor to have him be a part of our team. All of us at Sam Schmidt Motorsports are deeply saddened by his passing. On behalf of everyone at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, our prayers go out to all of his family, especially his wife, Susie, and their two children.”
Helio Castroneves, echoing the thoughts of many of the drivers followed suit; and his focus, like many of ours this Monday centers around the most important people Wheldon leaves behind.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Dan Wheldon’s family,” he said. “It is hard to put into words how sad this is for all us of here. On the track we compete, but at the end of the day we are like a big family and today we lost a part of that. I think that the series made a good call to end the race and have the parade laps to honor the life of our fellow driver.”
I second that notion and humbly ask you pray for his family as well, for his wife Susie and their two small children: Sebastian, just two years old, and Oliver, born just seven months ago. They’ll need our support, our love, and our helping hands in the difficult weeks and months to come.
At terrible times like these, we’re reminded just how inherently dangerous the great sport of auto racing really is; we take for granted the speed and the hazards these drivers face week in, week out. It’s easy to forget how paper thin the margins are between success and failure, life and death. Sadly enough, it’s was none other than Wheldon himself who reminded us all, astute observations made within the season finale program. When asked how it feels to go 220+ MPH, Wheldon said: “The car feels very much on the edge; it floats to some degree. To me, that feels normal. 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.”
On Sunday, we saw a downside to that awesome addiction, a disastrous ending attached to when it all goes horribly wrong. Today, I saw the worst of auto racing and I hope and pray I never see it again. I admit that I never knew Dan Wheldon personally; I never even met him. But I felt a kinship with him as a fellow Brit and I celebrated his Indy 500 championship just a few short months ago. To be dealt this cruel hand, so young seems as incredibly unfair as it is unsettling.
Yet that is the sport of auto racing, the weekly flirtation with death Hemingway so accurately describes and one every driver, to some degree accepts when they slide in the cockpit. Once those engines fire, there’s simply no guarantee every one of those drivers will make it back safe and sound.
I admit, that cold reality hardly makes it any easier to deal, though as we all look for understanding through an incident that leaves us all asking, “Why?” I’ll leave the final words to Wheldon’s close friend, Tony Kanaan, the “race winner” on a day where his own tears showcased how much everyone in attendance had actually lost.
“No words to describe the pain,” he said of Wheldon. “See you on the other side, my dear friend. You will be missed.”
May he rest in peace.
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