Racing’s Terrible Toll

No doubt you must have heard about and perhaps seen yesterday’s horrific accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway which killed two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. It was both horrifying and mesmerizing. Within a few minutes it must have been certain to the folks in the booth that Wheldon (a colleague who had worked with some of the producers and technical personnel earlier this season for 3 races), was dead. The producer and director wisely chose not to show replays after the first 15 minutes and they did not show the wrecked chassis of his car, which track officials wisely covered immediately.

The clip begins onboard Wheldon’s car. “GO LOW! GO LOW! GO LOW!” Wheldon’s spotter screamed. The car takes flight at the bottom of the track (0:15) and bursts into flame as it hits the catch-fence in front of the O'Reilly Auto Parts sign. At 0:26 a barely audible gasp, "He's dead."

It must have been the hardest two hours of their careers for Marty Reid, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear, the men in the ABC/ESPN booth. They knew the obvious had occurred and any doubts they might have had evaporated as the minutes interminably crawled by and Indy officials were not forthcoming with details of his treatment. Normally, when a driver gets injured, within a few minutes there’ll be either a full rundown of his injuries if they're minor or they'll at least say if he's awake and talking. The silence must have echoed in their ears.
NASCAR tribute decal for Talladega 10/22

Still, they could not speculate or allow their emotions to get the best of them. The official news would not come until someone reached Wheldon’s parents in England to gently break the news.

The cars were driving on a 1.5 mile high-banked oval track in Las Vegas, built for NASCAR. Stock cars have fenders and quarter-panels covering the wheels. If you graze another car, usually you don’t send him out of control. But open wheel cars are very different. When wheels touch or one wheel is grazed by the front wing of another, it’s disastrous. Las Vegas was known as one of the smoothest, best paved tracks, which lulled the drivers into driving “flat,” meaning they never lifted off the accelerator.

The initial crash occurred about a quarter mile ahead of him, but when you’re travelling at 220 MPH, that means your car moves forward 321 feet per second. That’s more than a whole football field and one end zone. “GO LOW! GO LOW! GO LOW!” his spotter screamed, but it was too late. Wheldon could not take evasive action. Another car came down in front of him and that’s when his left front wheel went over the back of that car, launching Wheldon’s car airborne, tumbling like a child’s toy into what’s called the “catch-fence,” which is nothing more than normal chain-link fencing three feet off the ground meant to keep flying debris from injuring spectators, above the SAFER barriers, which are engineered to absorb shock.

Wheldon’s cockpit hit the bottom of the SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barrier and continued into the catch-fence, erupting in flames as it happened. It's unlikely he survived the impact.

Wheldon was universally loved and respected in the garage. He was always known as the fellow who had an extra moment to talk to a fan, pose for apicture, sign an autograph. Countless anecdotes were repeated yesterday from fans who said he knelt down to talk with their child and didn’t just talk, he asked questions and listened. Just two weeks ago, a young friend, Matt Weaver, who writes about NASCAR and Formula 1, covered his first Indy race. He walked through the paddock area and chatted with Wheldon, who was warm, kind, and gracious. They weren't “the big shot series champion” and “the newly-minted journalist;” they were two guys who loved racing.

The race was red-flagged for nearly two hours. After the parade of tear-filled and ashen faces left the driver's meeting, the inevitable announcement was made. Wheldon’s fellow drivers chose to drive a five-lap tribute to him, during which his number 77 was the only number displayed atop the scoring pylon.

Perhaps the saddest ironies are that even though Wheldon had won an Indy Championship and had twice won the crown jewel, the Indy 500, first in 2005 and then again this May, he still had no full-time sponsor going into this, the season's finale. Because he was such a good driver, he was asked to test the new, safer 2012 Indy cars.

The adoption of that car will come one season too late for Dan Wheldon.

On Sunday morning, just hours before his death, he signed a contract to drive next season for Andretti-Greene racing, run by Mario’s son, Michael, who was his team owner when Wheldon won his first Indy 500.

He was going to take Danica Patrick’s vacated seat.

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