For the second time in ten years, one of my favorite racecar drivers has died in a crash. First, it was Dale Earnhardt, Sr--who died in a final lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Now it's Dan Wheldon--the two-time Indy 500 champion--who died at the Las Vegas race on Sunday.
Unlike the Earnhardt crash, I didn't see the incident that took Wheldon's life live. I joined ABC coverage of the race about four or five minutes after the 15-car pileup. By that time, he had been removed from the car and the emergency helicopter was being fired up. As much as the ABC announcers were trying to downplay the possibility that someone had been killed, as soon as I saw Wheldon's car covered by a yellow tarp, I knew that he was not going to survive. Having covered a fair share of airplane and serious car crashes, I know that the tarp means we are no longer dealing with a vehicle--but rather a piece of evidence that will need to be preserved for an investigation.
I had a chance to talk with Dan Wheldon at the EAA Airventure in 2005--about two months after he won his first Indy 500. I remember how small a guy he was (about 5-9, 160 pounds) and what a quick wit he had as well. I think it was the second question in our interview that I asked him if he was irritated by all of the attention Danica Patrick got for NOT winning the 500 that year--while he seemed to play second fiddle by WINNING THE RACE!! As I was asking the question, he got this little wry smile on his face and I could tell what he wanted to say--but like the skilled PR machines that these top-rank racers are, he gave me the politically correct answer of "Danica brings lots of fans and attention to the sport so it's all good."
He was worried about a flight with fellow Klein Tools endorser Mike Mancuso later that day at EAA--hoping Mike wouldn't make him lose his lunch doing stunts. While we waited for the Klein folks to bring him a t-shirt and picture to sign, Wheldon asked me about what it was like to live in town with so many planes flying around all the time. I appreciated the fact that he was willing to give 15-good minutes to a radio reporter from a podunk radio station.
What angers me about what happened yesterday is the fact that Dan Wheldon really should not have even been in that race. As proof of what a two-bit operation Indycar Racing has become, the defending 500 champion didn't even have a full-time sponsor. In fact, this was only his third race of the year. Wheldon was there only because he had a chance to win $5-million dollars in some cheesy challenge put up by IndyCar President Randy Bernard in a desperate attempt to gin up some interest in a race that was competing with NFL Football and the baseball playoffs for TV ratings. The prize was to be split with a woman from New Jersey who won an on-line contest (how do you think she feels today?).
I'm trying to take solace in the two things that eased the shock of Dale, Sr's death a decade ago: 1) That Dan's death will make the sport safer. Ironically, the ABC announcers mentioned that Wheldon was doing the test driving for a "safer" IndyCar--which will be used starting next year. You'll recall that Earnhardt's death led to required use of the Head and Neck Support device in NASCAR--along with improved safety belts, safer barrier walls and other advancements in the "Car of Tomorrow". And 2) That Dan Wheldon died doing what he loved and was passionate about. How many of us will ever get to have that as our epitaph?
Dan Wheldon leaves behind his wife and two children--both under the age of two.