As humans, we fear many things. Debt, war, to be alone. But we as a people fear nothing more than death. The inevitability of such an evil plagues us everyday whether we admit it or not. After all, the phrase "live each day as if it were your last" does not come from the promise of immortality. No, as humans we know our time is short but cannot know when our final breath will be taken.
In the racing community, drivers acknowledge at the start of every race that each race can be their last. But it has become a surreal reality, a seemingly far-fetched end. With modern safety equipment, fatal crashes are (thankfully) few and far between. But they still do happen.
Before today, the last fatal crash in the Indy-Car series occurred in 2006, five years prior. The last fatal crash for NASCAR fans was that of Dale Earnhart, the last Formula One Ayrton Senna. As fans, spectators, admirers, and even participants of the sport, we have become adjusted to the idea that all drivers who start the race may not finish, but they will be able to race again. Days like today have become rude awakenings.
Dan Wheldon was only thirty-three years old. He has two sons, aged two and six months. Think about that. In his short time on this Earth, he won the Indianapolis 500 twice. Dan had offers to race in other series, such as those mentioned previously, and turned them down because he felt like there was no greater feat than to be a champion on the famed Brickyard. He was a hero to the IndyCar series and an underappreciated driver, getting only three rides this year. It is all too ironic that his final ride ever was given partially due to his stunning victory in this year’s Indy 500.
Dan Wheldon was racing at Las Vegas for the opportunity of a lifetime: if he managed to work his way from the back to the front, he and a fan would share a five million dollar prize. After only 11 laps, Dan had already gained 10 positions. He was well on track to the money and having his number atop the leader board. His number was at the top when the race was called but for a far different reason than anyone would have wanted.
It is always horrific to see accidents and incidents like this occur, but even more terrifying when someone in your own family races. For those of you who don’t know, my own father had a very serious crash at Sebring in 1997. Everyone said he shouldn’t have walked away, he should have died. When his crash happened, the commentators were talking about him and showing onboard footage from his car…exactly what was happening with Dan today. When the crash first started to happen, the camera angle was from onboard Mr. Wheldon’s car. It made the crash even scarier, almost like a warped, modern replay of a video I have seen too many times. I was almost expecting Dan to get out the car with the help of the safety workers, take his helmet off, and shake out his hair, much like my father did. Except Dan didn’t get out of the car.
Everyone knows death is just waiting to strike. For those who race, part of the thrill is being so close and avoiding it week after week. “At least he died doing what he loved,” my dad said before they officially announced it. As a driver, he knew it was worse than they were saying. All the drivers understand the danger. The love of the sport is too great to overcome with fear.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Dan Wheldon. Not many racecar drivers are as classy or as talented as you. Thank you for choosing to stay with IndyCar and replacing the fear of death with the drive to win.