Did Wheldon have to die?
Sebastian Wheldon is never going to remember his dad. Baby Oliver will never know him. This can’t happen. It shouldn’t happen. But it happens in auto racing, and we want answers, clear reasons for the horrific way this sport always faces death.
Dan Wheldon, husband, father and two-time Indy 500 winner, died Sunday in a 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His car flew over another one, turned in the air and crashed into the catch fence. His head apparently smashed against a wall, though it was hard to be that specific with cars flying all over the place, and fire and parts and pieces and colors and shapes bouncing around in every direction.
Sometimes, there just isn’t fault, other than the danger of the sport. But I don’t want to hear anything about occupational hazards this time. Not now. Of course they exist. But that doesn’t mean other real reasons don’t exist, too. What these guys do is dangerous enough.
To compromise it the way desperate IndyCar leaders did with this race? Well, that seems almost criminal.
The race was always going to be too fast, too packed together at three-wide, and too crowded with 34 cars. The drivers were complaining about it beforehand.
This race had been turned into a carnival to try to save a sport. Indy racing is losing Danica Patrick to NASCAR. And IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had said that if ratings didn’t go up from this championship race, didn’t beat last year’s minuscule TV ratings, then he would hand in his resignation.
So he offered up a $5 million winner’s prize to any driver who wasn’t an Indy racer. It was a challenge to prove the talent level of Indy drivers. Five non-Indy drivers could enter.
Imagine that: Cars would be going 225 mph, side by side, packed together, and an X-Games athlete, Travis Pastrana, who has NASCAR aspirations, was going to try. He hurt his leg beforehand.
That turned out to be the luckiest day of his life.
This isn’t the "Price is Right," where you can just call someone down to participate.
They couldn’t get NASCAR drivers to give it a shot, partly because they knew this race was a death trap. Even top Indy racers were worried about conditions and speeds they felt were just too dangerous.
"Within five laps, people started to do crazy stuff," driver Dario Franchitti told reporters just after the accident, before Wheldon was pronounced dead. "I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that, to me, is not what it’s about.
"I said before: This is not a suitable track. You can’t get away from anybody. One small mistake, and you have a massive wreck."
Yes, but that was the sales pitch, too.
Not a suitable track. And Dan Wheldon is dead at 33. And a wife doesn’t have a husband, and two children don’t have a father.
Gearheads will mourn Wheldon, but they also will say that this is part of the sport. But was this really just some unavoidable fluke?
It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds as if the drivers were waiting for it to happen.
Danger equals excitement in auto racing, and they pushed this one too far. This is a sport that sells danger, and the drivers and their teams are professionals, beating death. It’s the edge that creates so much of the thrill that fans pay to see.
But if you have a track where drivers will go three across, where they can’t separate themselves from the pack, where they are going 225 mph, and it’s all a cry out for attention? Well, that seems recklessly dangerous.
You know how sometimes you can’t decide whether to be sad and to mourn, or to be angry? This is the moment to feel both at the same time.
Now, to be honest, Wheldon and the other drivers knew how dangerous this particular race was. And he entered the race anyway. He risked his life, even though he has a wife, a 2-year-old and a 7-month-old at home.
Sometimes, you just have to look at yourself, look at what you’re doing and what you’re risking. This was a sport that was pumping up the danger as if it were a free Big Mac when your team scores 100 points.
It turned out, Bernard didn’t find five drivers from outside of Indy racing to compete for the $5 million. So after switching things around a little, officials allowed Wheldon to be the one competing for the money. He doesn’t have a team this year and hasn’t been racing much, which made his win at the Indy 500 all the more amazing.
Earlier this year, Bernard said this: "I would like to think every driver is going to benefit from this significantly if we can move the dial on the ratings. I’ve made it clear I’d be very disappointed — I think I even told someone I’d resign — if we didn’t triple the ratings. I think it’s very important that if we can triple the ratings, every driver will see positive momentum, every team owner will and the series will. We’re here to do one thing, and that’s continue to push viewership and our fan base upward."
After the race, some of the drivers were talking about getting together to have discussions about what’s happening to the safety of their sport. NASCAR made changes after Dale Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500, and the races have been safer since then.
"When I came around and saw this crash, it was horrifying," driver Ryan Briscoe said. "It was like driving through a war zone. We all predicted something like this would happen. It was inevitable.
"Everyone can run so close at the moment. These open-wheel cars, there is no room for error. It’s exciting and thrilling when it all goes well.”
This time, excitement and thrills meant cars in the air and on fire.
The mess started when Wade Cunningham slowed down after some contact with James Hinchliffe. And it led to an unavoidable chain reaction. TV analysts had just been saying that Wheldon was in a good spot. About five seconds later, Wheldon’s car was in the air. Other cars went airborne, too. But while other drivers went to the hospital, they apparently were not hurt seriously.
After the crash, the remaining drivers had a meeting and decided to stop the race. Then they got back into their cars, formed three rows on the track and drove in a procession, five laps, to honor Wheldon while "Amazing Grace" played over the PA system.
It was a beautiful tribute, actually, from the teams and the drivers. By then, the desperation and panic were gone. Just sadness over the death of a young father, husband and champion was left.