Dan Wheldon: An initial reaction

IndyCar commentary — By on October 18, 2011 1:52 pm

I’ve been putting off writing this. It’s taken me this long to figure out what I could possibly add to the discussion of Sunday’s events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that would be even the slightest bit meaningful or valuable.

One thing I’m certain I can’t add to in a useful way is the ongoing tribute to Dan’s life and career. A great many people who are far more qualified to do so than I am have already shared many thoughts and memories of Dan. I encourage everyone to seek out the works of Robin Miller, John Oreovicz, Marshall Pruett, and the other professionals who have worked with Dan and analyzed his career for many years and can therefore offer more thorough insight and sentiment regarding his life as a racer and as a person.

But after reflecting for a while, I realized that there is one way that I can provide useful commentary. The outpouring of emotion and grief over the last couple of days has hammered home the point to me that many of today’s INDYCAR fans – particularly the younger ones – are experiencing the loss of a star driver for the first time.

Others of us, on the other hand, have been through this before. That’s not to say it makes the mourning process any easier – nothing does. But it does mean we’ve found the answers to some of the questions that are inevitably asked at times like this.

And all of those questions start with the same word: Why?

Why do racers do what they do when they know full well that every time they climb into their cockpits there’s a not-insignificant chance that they’ll never climb out?

Why do members of the media cover it when they know that there will always be awful days like Sunday where they have no choice but to report the unthinkable?

Why do fans buy tickets to watch, ask for photos, and line up for autographs from people who insist on putting themselves deliberately into harm’s way for nothing more than sport, a fleeting couple of hours of thrill a few times a year?

Why do we all as participants in and observers of this sport endorse actions that can lead to such devastation that leaves us all reeling for such a very long time?

I do believe in God, but I’ve never found much solace in speculating on how things like this fit into God’s plan. I’ve also never particularly cared for the often-repeated statement, “At least he died doing what he loved.” That’s all well and good for the driver who’s gone, but it’s cold comfort for those he leaves behind.

But in my first time dealing with this painful circumstance after Greg Moore passed away, I eventually found my deepest comfort in reaching an understanding of the cycle of motorsport. Yes, a racer’s death can be seen as pointless when it looks like nothing more than a fatal error in the pursuit of an otherwise-meaningless adrenaline-fueled thrill. But the cycle of racing goes so much deeper.

See, today’s crop of racers was inspired by the generations that came before, and the previous generation by the ones that came before that, by having their imaginations captivated by the unbridled, limitless pursuit of a dream. Racing is the one sport in the world that most delivers the lowest of lows and the highest of highs, and a select few are brave enough and talented enough and insane enough to want to become a part of that roller coaster and attempt to etch their places in history.

Another, larger group is enthralled by that raw desire, that base human ambition, and despite being unable to actively participate is equally captivated by the pursuit but must settle merely for the opportunity to observe. We live vicariously through the racers as they put everything they have, everything they are, on the line to achieve the pinnacles of sport and of the human experience. And while these racers undoubtedly do it for themselves, they also – at least partially – do it for our benefit so that we may in some way feel we’ve been part of what they’ve achieved.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that dream, some racers lose their lives.

But those of us who get to observe, who become hopelessly captivated, for whom those racers risk life and limb – if we dismiss what we grow so quickly to love so deeply and walk away at a time when the lowest of lows is found, then we do a grave disservice to those who we have asked to give their all. We do a disservice to Greg, we do a disservice to Tony, and to Paul, and to Gonzalo, and to the many, many others who have come before – and now, we would do a disservice to Dan, too.

These men have all strapped themselves into these machines that are capable of such devastation so that we can bear witness to the ultimate in sporting achievement, to the ultimate in the human experience.  If we walk away when that goes awry, we render their risks and their sacrifices meaningless.

Indeed, the greatest honor we can do to these racers is to carry on. Racers may be lost these days with far less frequency than they once were, but even in the modern era, motorsport manages to carry on in spite of it all. And INDYCAR will carry on today. Dan would demand it – Dan does demand it. As many people have observed, no one loved INDYCAR racing more than Dan Wheldon. The greatest service we can do to his memory is to do everything we can to ensure that INDYCAR racing lives on and to make it the best it can possibly be.

I’m intensely aware of the fact that Dan was my age and that he had a son who is only a couple of months younger than my daughter who will never remember his father. The enormity of that loss hasn’t fully impacted on me yet, and I’m not sure that it ever will. But I’m also very aware that Dan left us while actively working to improve INDYCAR’s position in the world of motorsport as he tested the new car and prepared himself to become the public face of the Series.

Dan has laid the groundwork such that INDYCAR can carry on. It must carry on. Thanks to Dan Wheldon, 2012 will herald a new era for INDYCAR, a fresh start. And in his memory, having the entire racing community band together to take INDYCAR to the greatness that it deserves is the only appropriate way to honor his memory.

Rest in peace, Dan. We will all be forever indebted to you. And I think I speak for all of us when I swear that we will do everything in our power to ensure that we never let you down.