Thursday, October 20, 2011

Death of a Champion

This commentary first appeared in the Oct. 18, 2011, edition of The Sacramento Bee. -- mg

Sacramento, California -- For those who have followed IndyCar racing for decades and delved into its century-old history, Sunday's terrible events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came as no surprise.

And yet the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was no less shocking, no less heartbreaking. If anything, Wheldon's death unveiled the compassion and soul of the people who race mega-speed missiles for a living.

Drivers whose hard, sometimes emotionless faces have been common in past interviews wept openly – a gut-wrenching and yet spirit-lifting display of unvarnished humanity.

TV commentators, team owners and drivers said all the right things amid Sunday's grief. They accurately noted that we've become so accustomed to race drivers walking away from the most horrific crashes that we've become jaded. We expect drivers to pop up out of the cockpits of mangled cars and give a jaunty wave to a relieved crowd.

Advances in car and track safety over the past 40 years have helped foster that feeling of security. Wearing fire-resistant suits and protective helmets, IndyCar drivers are wrapped in a virtually indestructible cocoon, their bodies held in place by belts and padding.

And yet the laws of physics and flesh are brutal and unbending. Simply, a human subjected to hard impact at 225 mph can perish in any number of ways. The drivers know this entering every race.

This knowledge inspires awe in the rest of us, that they can compete in close quarters at blinding speed, week after week, knowing the potential consequences.

It takes a lot to stare down a 99-mph fastball or a charging, supremely conditioned linebacker, but let's face it: There's no comparison between those things and the dangers drivers of open-wheel racing cars face.

It used to be much more dangerous, of course.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was common for two, three or even four name drivers to die in Indy cars every year. Drivers who not only survived but won in those eras – A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti among them – would admit they didn't strive to have friendships among their colleagues because the odds were those competitors might not be around long.

I remember that era well, but alas, I, too, had become complacent lately.
After Sunday's 15-car crash at Las Vegas – the most violent I've seen in my 50 years of watching IndyCar events – I was hopeful that every driver involved would be interviewed after a checkup at the infield care center. But as I watched rescue teams at work and mentally checked off those drivers who had walked away, a dreadful realization came over me.

Oh my God, not Dan. Please, not Dan.

And yet it was Dan. All the safety team actions and the body language of the drivers told the awful truth. And then it was official.

Dan Wheldon – 33, father of two, husband, sparkling personality, well-spoken ambassador of the sport, instantly likable and IndyCar champion – was gone.

In my view, it was IndyCar's darkest day since May 30, 1964, when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald died in a huge, fiery crash on the second lap of the Indianapolis 500. I was there that day, a 10-year-old seeing his fourth Indy 500. I have never completely gotten over that crash and its horror.

Now I will never forget Oct. 16, 2011. And I'll always remember Dan Wheldon, a champion.

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