The international world of motorsports came to a standstill on Sunday afternoon, October 16th, following the devastating news that driver Dan Wheldon died from massive injuries sustained from a multi car accident while participating in the IZOD INDYCAR Series’ season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The IZOD INDYCAR championships, presented by Honda, was supposed to be a major source of celebration. It was the series’ time to shine in Las Vegas to celebrate what has been a very good season with even more positive aspects expected in 2012.
This event was about a close season championship run featuring drivers Dario Franchitti, seeking his third consecutive title, and Will Power. The race was also billed as a fond farewell to driver Danica Patrick, who was competing in her final event as a full time INDYCAR driver. Wheldon himself was involved in a special $5 million bonus, to be shared with a lucky fan, if he could win the race after starting last in the field. The race was also filled with high anticipation over the potential action from a series high 34 car starting field.
All of those major positive aspects unravelled on lap 11 of the race. In the midst of three wide racing, the front tires from two cars touched and launched a massive 15 car pile up. Some of the cars, including the one driven by Wheldon, went airborne and hit the safety catch fence above the track’s retaining wall.
The red flag, to stop the race, was quickly presented and the process of cleaning up the massive debris from the cars, as well as repairing the catch fence, began.
In the seemingly endless moments that followed there were strong indications of a serious situation involving Dan Weldon:
A helicopter was seen getting ready to take off and we later learned that Wheldon was being transported to a nearby Las Vegas hospital.
ABC Sports dispatched their pit reporter, Jamie Little, to the hospital. That’s something rarely seen during the course of a race broadcast.
The red flag condition remained intact despite the fact that the clean up and repairs were now completed and the track was again ready for racing.
IZOD INDYCAR Series officials called a driver’s meeting to reportedly “discuss the situation.”
When the drivers exited this meeting the expressions on their faces had us all braced for the worst possible news.
The tragic news was delivered by INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard who, from a prepared statement, said:
“INDYCAR is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon passed away for unsurvivable injuries. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dan and his family. INDYCAR, its drivers and teams have decided to end the race. We will run a five lap salute in honor of Dan.”
Moments later, 19 emotionally charged drivers climbed into their race cars to run what was described as “the longest five laps in racing history.” Every member of every team solemnly lined up at the edge of pit road to pay their respects. The speedway placed Wheldon’s #77 at the top of the electronic scoreboard.
As the cars made their way around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the sound of their engines were intertwined with an audio track of bagpipes playing the gospel song “Amazing Grace.” It was, quite possibly, at this point when the full weight of this tragedy landed on us all.
In the aftermath of this tragedy news media, at all levels, went into overtime to tell this sad story. There were very appropriate platitudes regarding Wheldon’s racing career such as his two Indy 500 wins and series championship. There were equally appropriate platitudes regarding Wheldon’s personal life pointing out that he was a good man, husband, father and humanitarian who frequently shared the blessings of his life to help others less fortunate.
But the reality of this tradegy also created negative questions regarding the racing series from both drivers and the media including:
does the series have any business racing on 1.5 mile ovals, such as the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, that were actually designed for NASCAR stock cars?
The pre race practice speeds reportedly hit in excess of 220 MPH and prompted the question: are the cars just too fast, especially for oval tracks of any size?
Was starting 34 cars a good idea in light of the fact there was certainly going to be traffic bottlenecks, three, even four, wide racing and driver impatience with the difficulty of passing?
These are all issues that will need to be addressed in the future by series officials. But that process is better left for a later date in the future. This is absolutely not the time for business administration. This is the time for everyone associated with the IZOD INDYCAR Series to grieve over the loss of a competitor and a good friend.
It’s also a time for racing fans, worldwide, to send a God bless, along with good thoughts and prayers, for Dan Wheldon as well as his wife and young sons,
In a very simple statement, team owner Chip Ganassi, whom Wheldon used to drive for, probably put it best when he said “everybody in INDYCAR died a little today.”