Goodbye, Dan

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 30: Dan Wheldon of England, driver of the #98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara Honda poses with Borg Warner Trophy on the yard of bricks and son, Sebastian Wheldon during the 95th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

A sudden sense of foreboding just washed over me. Hopefully baseless. Hope everyone is safe out there today.
- the author, prior to the start of the IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

He lingers now as a searing memory. That impossibly bright smile, the tears on his face when he talked about his Alzheimers-afflicted mother, the joyous embrace with Bryan Herta, the swig of milk.

That is what I want to remember about Dan Wheldon. I do not want to remember how his life ended at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this afternoon.

I would rather have images in my head of Wheldon playfully chasing Robin Miller down the pit lane during his brief tenure as a pit reporter, making the most of his absence from a full-time ride, than see one more replay of his #77 Dallara tumbling, on fire, catapulting head-first into the LVMS catchfence.

When I think of the latter, it is agony.

And it is not even fresh agony. The parallels between Dan Wheldon's fatal accident and the one that killed Greg Moore over a decade ago are like a sick joke played on us all by fate. The lame-duck driver headed to a new opportunity in the new season to come, smiling his eager smile, and then taken from us in a horrific instant. That Dan could be killed in such an eerily-similar fashion enrages me and makes me wonder, if there IS a controlling influence in the Universe, what kind of sadistic bastard he or she is.

The 15-car incident that took Dan Wheldon from us cannot fall under the heading of "just racing" or as the results of an acceptable margin of risk when cars race as fast as IndyCars race on high-banked superspeedways. Yes, we are lulled into a sense of complacency by years where drivers are injured, sometimes seriously, but not killed. Some may say that one fatality in a decade is a rather good ratio when you're speaking of 200mph-plus speeds in open-cockpit open wheel cars.

But that does not comfort the family and friends of those lost. And it glosses over and excuses far too much that can be changed, but isn't.

There will be days, weeks, months, even years to indulge in a deeper examination of those issues; for now, it is too soon, too raw, too heartbreaking to contemplate.

When you choose a career in racing, you try to train yourself to expect things like this. The longer you are around this kind of business, the greater the odds that someone you know will be crippled or will die because of this addictive, high-adrenaline sport. You know that the concept of "walking away" from enormous accidents is a fallacy, and that someday, someone you love won't walk away. On days like these, I secretly envy those I know who have formed emotional callouses to deal with tragedy. I do not have the capacity, even after a decade and a half.

I think culturally we are in a different place than we were in the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s, when so many racing drivers lost their lives in equipment and conditions that, in hindsight, were utterly appalling. It bears noting that Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 rendered NASCAR nearly unrecognizable within the space of a couple of years, so quick and extensive were the changes in safety in the series.

There are still a small nucleus of hard-core fans who believe that the danger in racing is to be embraced, that examining a racing death - especially in circumstances like these - is overreaction and unnecessary. For me, these people come from the same camp who believe that concussions are an integral part of the culture of ice hockey, or who believe that targeting injured players in other sports to aggravate such injury passes for "sportsmanship." They believe that because athletes choose to participate in a particular sport, they must be ready to face the consequences.

To this I can only say this - there is danger in every occupation in life. Wise is the person who takes every precaution to avoid that danger as much as possible, and foolish is the person who simply accepts the danger as part of the fabric of what he does. Those occupational hazards that can be mitigated - for instance, by a HANS device or a SAFER barrier - SHOULD be mitigated, and if they are not then it is criminal stupidity... to the point that the people responsible must needs share the blame for the inevitable tragedies to follow.

Again, though, that is a battle to be fought another day. It WILL be fought, because there are some who are already digging their trenches and readying their barrages to defend their positions. But I do not have the stomach for it. All I can think of now is Dan Wheldon's family and their sorrow, and the fact that the light and happiness that Dan brought to their lives - indeed, to all of our lives - has been lost forever.

I have chosen to post this article because I don't know how much longer I can keep the tears away. For now, I am in shock. But I can feel the agony creeping up on me. So while I can, I'll say the only thing I can that will mean anything.

Farewell, Dan.

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