Sunday, October 16, 2011

RIP Dan Wheldon

For most of his career, I was never a Dan Wheldon fan. I didn't dislike him--beyond the fact that he won a lot of races and wasn't Bryan Herta, the guy I cheered for--but I wasn't a fan. This year, that changed. He signed with Herta's team to race the Indy 500 and I had someone else to root for in addition to Will Power.

As I mentioned, Herta was my favorite driver growing up. Far and away. I used to pick drivers to root for based on how they treated me when I would go autograph-hunting in the paddock as a young'un. Herta was always the nicest guy out there. He didn't win a lot--only 4 races in his open-wheel career--but he was a solid driver in an extremely competitive era. He was always kind of an underdog, and he was fun to root for.

Now, as a car owner, he's continued that. He's owned a team in Indy Lights for a couple of years (that's the equivalent of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but without the Sprint Cup regulars driving). For the 2010 Indy 500, his team decided to take their Indy Lights driver, Sebastian Saavedra, and make their Izod IndyCar Series debut. Due to the unique qualifying procedure for the Indy 500, Saavedra was bumped from the race, wrecked his car in practice before making another attempt to get in, and then (while at the hospital and without turning another lap) regained his spot in the field while other drivers withdrew their qualifying times to try to defend themselves against other drivers bumping them. It led to a classic scene where Herta called Saavedra at the hospital to tell him that he made the race.

Like I said, a huge underdog.

For the 2011 Indy 500, Herta hired Wheldon to drive his car. The two were former teammates and good friends. People laughed when Wheldon suggested he could win the race in the #98 William Rast car, but due to an alignment with the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team, they were able to put a good car under him. It looked like Wheldon was headed for a third-consecutive runner-up finish in the race when this happened:

The leader of the race, rookie JR Hildebrand, crashed in the final corner and Wheldon snuck by for the victory. Seeing Bryan Herta's tiny team win the Indianapolis 500 was one of the single greatest moments of my sports-watching life. Just listen to that in-car audio at the end. The first voice to come on is Herta's. The squeal of excitement is Wheldon.

Wheldon didn't have a full-time ride for the rest of the year and spent a lot of time doing color commentary for Versus during some of the races. It quickly became evident that in addition to being the best color guy I've ever seen working a race, that he was a really great guy. Always smiling, always enthusiastic. Herta and Wheldon teamed up to be the test team for the new car that is coming next year. Ironically, the new car has a bumper behind the rear wheels that will strive to keep cars from launching into the air.

Wheldon was invited to drive in the season finale at Las Vegas and would have split $5 million with a fan had he won the race. As part of the promotion, he had to start at the rear of the field. Early in the race, a wreck was triggered mid-pack. With cars going 220+ miles per hour, no one had time to react and several cars, including Wheldon's, got airborne. Wheldon flipped cockpit-first into the catch-fence. There aren't many worse feelings in the world than knowing a wreck was potentially fatal and having to wait for them to identify which car it was, hoping that it wasn't one of your favorite drivers, while feeling like a scumball at the same time because you realize that means you're involuntarily hoping that it's someone else. The race was red-flagged, and as time went on it became more evident that this story wasn't going to have a happy ending. It felt eerily similar to when Greg Moore was killed in 1999, and you could hear it in the announcers' voices that they knew more than they were able to let on. By the time Randy Bernard made the announcement we were all pretty much already knew.

These drivers know the risks of strapping themselves into these machines. I know that they know the risks. But this still never gets any easier. I love this sport so damn much, but when this happens it really makes me question why I keep watching. Not many of my friends have shared my love for racing, but a couple have. One cheered for Greg Moore. One cheered for Dan Wheldon. I was raised a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan.

I know there were likely thousands of other great husbands/fathers/people who died today, and many didn't voluntarily partake in a job that has this much risk, but seeing Dario Franchitti's face as he strapped back into his car for the 5-lap tribute to Wheldon, hearing Danica Patrick barely keeping it together in her goodbye to the series that made her famous, seeing the cars drive slowly around the track while "Amazing Grace" and "Danny Boy" played over the PA system, and seeing pictures like this....

...and I can't help but shed a tear. Or a lot of them. I know it's part of the risk of the sport, but like I said, it never gets any easier seeing someone's life come to an end like that.

Here's the tribute. Undoubtedly that's one of the hardest things any of those drivers have ever had to do:

So thank you, Dan Wheldon. Thank you for bringing an Indy 500 victory to Bryan Herta. Thank you for one of the happiest moments of my sports-watching life.

I'm really crushed right now--and I'm so thankful that somewhere along the lines, my fiancee and I got our wires crossed and she thought that I didn't actually want to go to Vegas for the finale this year. There are a pair of tickets sitting on my window sill. I can't decide if I should keep them or tear them up into as small of pieces as I possibly can, and get rid of them as quickly as I got rid of the recording of the race on my DVR.

Marty Reid gets a lot of criticism about his broadcasting, but the way he left it today was beautiful, so I'll leave you with his words: "Many people ask me why I always sign off with 'Til we meet again'. Because 'Goodbye' is always so final. Goodbye Dan Wheldon."

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Very nice write-up, Tim, thanks. I remember watching that 1999 race in which Greg Moore was killed. It was then that I was really struck by the reality of the dangers these drivers endure. When it was apparent that Wheldon was in serious trouble on Sunday, Moore's crash was the first thing that popped into my head. I tell myself that I just have to trust that IndyCar will continue making improvements to safety and prevent as many casualties as possible. It will always be a dangerous sport. As one of my all-time favorite drivers, I will very much miss Dan Wheldon. My heart breaks for his family and I'm disappointed that I won't get to see him return to Andretti's team next season. But hopefully IndyCar learns some lessons from this (starting with not having so many cars on a track of that size and speed), and Dan's death won't be in vain.