Sunday, October 16, 2011

The pain of death

Auto racing is a dangerous sport. We all get that. However, that doesn’t change the extreme grief and pain that comes along with death.

Former IndyCar Series champion and defending Indianapolis 500 Champion Dan Wheldon died Sunday after an incredibly bad wreck 11 laps into the final race of the IndyCar season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It has been a while since motorsports lost a driver because of injuries sustained in a racing crash in America. The last IndyCar driver to die because of a crash was Paul Dana in 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Dale Earnhardt was the last NASCAR fatality after his wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

That, however, doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult to deal with the death of a racecar driver. One death is by far one too many, and each time a series director has to make that awful announcement, it is the absolutely worst words that have to be said. Unfortunately, we live in a sinful world where things don’t always turn out on the good side.

It is horrible to say, but deaths in auto racing have been fairly common throughout
the years. However, now every national race is on television and racing safety has improved to the point where we all want to hope that the latest death is always the final one.

To say the least, those three hours of ABC’s coverage Sunday were difficult to watch. I’m sure many fans felt those terrible emotions that bubble up during a horrific wreck.

First there’s the shock of what happened. No racing accident is expected, especially one with the severity of Sunday’s wreck.

Then there are the hold-your-breath moments directly after the wreck where you make sure everybody is able to either drive away, as Jimmie Johnson did in the NASCAR race Saturday night at Charlotte, or at least walk away.

In the last decade, that has almost always been the case. No matter how bad the wreck looks, the driver is able to get out of the car. We’ve seen it in both NASCAR and Indycar. Elliot Sadler got out of his car after hitting the inside wall at Pocono head-on, and while Mike Conway didn’t walk away from a wreck at the end of the 2010 Indy 500 when he flipped up into the fence, he still came away with injuries no worse than what would put a football player on injured reserve.

But, when that doesn’t happen, then we are left with that empty feeling of not knowing what is going on and what condition the driver is in. At that point a mix hope and fear starts to set in.

In Earnhardt’s case, everybody saw the ambulance rushing out of Daytona International Speedway. On Sunday, everybody saw the medical helicopter take off. At that point best-case scenarios start to run through people’s mind, such as, “Well, he’s hurt, but it probably isn’t too serious and he will be fine.”

Then we wait.

And then we hear the news.

That’s when the bottom falls out of your heart. The series representative makes the announcement, there is again initial shock and then people start to comprehend what that statement really means. Dan Wheldon will not be coming back.

That feeling is the lowest of lows. Yes, there is nothing worse in racing, but there is also nothing worse in life.

Death is bad. It hurts everybody. People lost not simply a racecar driver Sunday; they lost a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a friend.

Emotions in the wake of Sunday’s accident will surely cover the spectrum. Some will be sad, some will say, “Hey, it’s a dangerous sport,” and some will be angry at the series or the race track or the entire situation.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The hurt of losing someone you personally knew, or knew vicariously through the television, is the worst kind of hurt. Maybe the sport will continue to become safer in the wake of Wheldon’s death, he was the main driver testing a new, safer car model for 2012, but ultimately Sunday was a dark day.

Dan Wheldon will be missed.


  1. Well written article about an unfortunate subject.

  2. olderguy - It's a horrible subject. That is the absolute worst situation possible.