Back in 2001, I stood helplessly up in the TV booth at Daytona International Speedway when my friend and former competitor lost his life on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
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I had never been at a crossroad like this in my entire life. I suspected things were bad for Dale Earnhardt and I needed to get to the hospital. At the same time, my brother had not only won his first race of his career, but the biggest race a stock-car driver could ever win and I needed to get to Victory Lane.
While I had tears in my eyes for what Michael had done, I had terror in my soul because I just knew in my heart that things were catastrophic for Dale. So instead of going to celebrate with my brother, I went to the hospital because my friend was in trouble. It’s a helpless feeling that words simply can’t do justice to.
For all the heartbreak and sadness that losing Dale caused to our sport and his legions of fans, there was one shining bright light. It pushed the sanctioning body, the racetracks, the owners, drivers and teams to take safety to a whole new level. So out of all that darkness came a new focus and commitment to safety and, thankfully, we haven’t lost a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver since that horrible day in February 2001.
I had gotten back from being over in Charlotte for the race last week and had been explaining to my family about Jimmie Johnson’s wreck. It was a nasty one, too. Jimmie went head on into the wall with such force that it lifted the rear wheels off the ground. It was eerily reminiscent of Dale’s wreck, but again with the addition of the HANS device, the SAFER barriers, the improved seat and improved safety measures in the car, Jimmie was only shaken and fortunately nothing worse.
It was at that point my son-in-law asked if I knew when the IndyCar race from Las Vegas was scheduled to start. Thinking that maybe it already had, we went inside and turned on the TV only to find the race in a red-flag condition. It was only then that we started to see a number of replays of the horrible wreck that took place so early on in the race.
When an IndyCar goes over the back of another car, it unfortunately has a tendency to get airborne. When that happens, the risk is that the car gets high enough to go over the SAFER barriers and into the catch fence. That can be disastrous. After watching a number of replays, I realized that was Dan Wheldon’s car that had gotten airborne.
Unfortunately, I had a sick feeling in my stomach after seeing replays over and over. That same sinking feeling was only reinforced when I saw the body language of the crews, rescue workers and the other drivers. Sadly, as we were to learn later, that wreck took Dan Wheldon’s life.
Now normally I am a person that enjoys irony. Most times it is pretty humorous. This definitely isn’t one of those times. Because he did not have a full-time ride, Dan had been very active in testing a new, safer IndyCar. He had put a lot of time and effort into that development.
So now this is where it gets tough. I mean really, really tough. This is where folks ask the drivers how they can watch something like that happen with the horrific outcome, yet climb back into that race car and go compete.
I’ve struggled with coming up with a good explanation of why we do that my whole career. Words fail me greatly when trying to explain it. I try to explain to folks it’s for the love of the game. It’s what God created us to do. That’s how I was wired up. I had a passion and a God-given talent to drive a race car. Could I have taken another career path and done something different? I probably could but I wouldn’t have been as good or as successful at it.
God has a plan for all of us. The key in life is finding out what that plan is and following it. When my girls were growing up, I stressed to them to find something they are passionate about and pursue it. I promised them their mother and I would support them no matter what path they chose.
When you fight through the tears and sadness of what happened to a good family man like Dan Wheldon, you realize, unfortunately, the stark reality that there is risk in anything we do. I could step off the curb crossing the street in downtown Nashville at the same time someone in a car runs a red light and could be killed. It sounds simplistic, but that’s because it is. Who hasn’t heard stories of a soldier surviving fighting in some far-off land protecting our freedom, only to come home and be killed in a car wreck or a robbery?
As a race car driver, we have a different mindset. We honestly believe down to our core that “it can’t happen to me.” We believe “it might happen to the other guy but not me.” Every accident I was in as a driver, I was blessed. I survived and I walked away. Now sure, sometimes like in Daytona in 1990, I got all busted up, but I was alive and able to come back and race again.
I learned next time to be more aware of a situation or do a better job in anticipating what might and probably would happen. I learned where the line was. I learned my limit and next time don’t go over it. Every time I had an accident, I took something way from it. I never let an accident take me away from the sport.
My passion was racing. Everything else ran a distant second. I would play hurt. I would do the rehab or whatever it took to get back in that race car. Broken ribs – I don’t care, tape me up. Busted leg – how soon can I drive again? Concussion – I’ll be fine. That was my mindset because I refused to let an accident control me and keep me from following my passion.
It’s like the old cliché of, “If you fall off the horse, you have to get back on it.” You just have to. You can’t let the fear take over and put up a barrier in your mind. That’s why I thought it was actually somewhat therapeutic Sunday when I saw those drivers get back in those cars and do tribute laps to Dan.
Trust me, getting back behind the wheel with their emotional wounds so new and fresh was the farthest thing from their minds. You saw drivers like my buddy and neighbor, Dario Franchitti, crying uncontrollably because of the heartache of losing his friend and competitor.
This was their last race of the season. Actually they didn’t even finish the race. For them to not get back in those cars and leave Las Vegas and let what happened play on their minds during the offseason would have been very tough. So, even though it was tribute laps to Dan, I actually think it helped them all start the process of recovery.
Now the hard part for any driver is having the mental toughness to recognize and accept what happened, yet compartmentalize it in his mind and put it away. See race car drivers are different animals. We believe our destiny is in our own hands. We are supremely confident when it comes to that. To a certain point, a driver feels bulletproof because he or she is in control.
Some may label that prideful, arrogant, ego, etc., but that’s our passion and we follow it to the fullest. We like to be challenged. We like to be in control. Most of all, obviously, we like to win.
Coming up through the ranks, I raced sometimes for the purse money to buy groceries. I’ve told this story a thousand times, but on the weekend of our wedding, Stevie and I literally stopped along the side of the road to wait for Momma and Daddy to come by to borrow enough gas money to get to the race. Heck, I had already calculated in my mind how much money I could make from winning the race and paying Daddy back.
The dirty little secret is we would go race for the trophy even if there wasn’t any purse money. I don’t care if it is playing cards, playing tennis, playing checkers or racing a car, drivers want to win. It’s that adrenaline rush we get when we finish first and beat our competitors, whether it’s one person at tennis or 42 others in a race.
Like everything else in life, there is the risk/reward factor. Obviously in racing, with the bigger the risk, then the greater the reward. Dale Earnhardt was trying to win the Daytona 500 in 2001. Dan Wheldon had already won the biggest race of his life again this year – the Indianapolis 500. That was then and Sunday was just another race where he wanted to be the first person to see the checkered flag.
Racing is a passion. It’s what we drivers love. Sure, when we are out of the race car we can reflect on all the “what ifs” of a race. When it’s time to put that firesuit and helmet on and go do our job, those “what-ifs” evaporate. We are willing to risk it all hoping we don’t have to give it all for the reward at the end of the day.
No driver gets behind the wheel of a race car with a death wish. It’s the complete opposite. When you sit down in the seat of that race car, you have all the confidence in the world. This is your day. You are smarter, better and faster than the other guy. You just know it.
Risk is part of what we do. We know it and accept it. We also try to eliminate as much of that risk as we can. Are you going to wreck? Sure you are sometimes, but you try and learn from each one. Learning from all those little knocks hopefully keeps you from having to face the big knock.
So how do these guys get back behind the wheel of a race car after a tragedy like we saw Sunday? It takes a lot of courage, mental toughness and internal fortitude to do it, but we have to. It’s our passion and it is what drives us.
So, it is a dark time right now in the driver fraternity, as I like to call it. We’ve lost one of our own. We will all grieve and pray for Dan’s family. We will mourn and then we will get up and go forward. Just as losing Dale propelled NASCAR forward in safety innovations, I believe we will see the same from Dan’s crash.
As I said earlier, Dan was a sweet, kind and loving man. He leaves behind a beautiful family. If there can be any glimmer of light from such a tragedy, it would be the new safety procedures that might come out of this. That will help offset, to a certain point, the pain and heartache of Sunday’s tragic day. That will be the undying legacy of Dan Wheldon.
Dan Wheldon will never be forgotten. He left an indelible memory. He’s at peace now. It’s for the rest of us to carry on. Please pray for his lovely wife and two young boys. We need to shower them with love and affection and lift them up in this dark hour.