The day began with a celebratory feel. The IZOD IndyCar Series was hold its season finale in Las Vegas. A champion would be crowned between Dario Franchitti and Will Power. JR Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe would battle for the Rookie of the Year title. Danica Patrick had a strong car in her final IndyCar race, and Dan Wheldon was going for $5 million. The race had all the potential for exciting, heart stopping action, which we already began to see through 11 laps.
Then came Lap 12 and the melee that ultimately cost Dan Wheldon his life.
For years, this kind of pack racing on 1.5 mile tracks were the calling card of IndyCar. When trying to show others what IndyCar was about, it was highlights from those races that fans showed. With the thrills though came a danger that loomed, the danger that comes when open wheeled, open cockpit cars run that close together at 220 mph. While there have been bad crashes before, IndyCar has escaped a fatality during pack racing until today.
Dan Wheldon broke into IndyCars in 2002. In the beginning, he was a brash party boy. That didn't change in 2005, when he was on top of the world after winning his first Indianapolis 500 and series championship. In recent years though, Dan had clearly matured. He got married, had kids, capped his teeth. Many of the tributes that have come today have mentioned how good he was to fans, how much time he'd spend chatting, and more than anything else, how much he loved IndyCar racing. Even this year, without a full-time ride, Dan didn't mope. He just went, got a ride driving for ex-teammate Bryan Herta, and won one of the most memorable Indy 500's ever. The surprise and joy exhibited by Dan will be remembered by everyone that witnessed it.
The irony (if it can be called that) is that Wheldon has spent the summer testing the new car that debuts next year. That car has covers on the rear wheels precisely to try and prevent cars from going airborne. Despite those risks, the safety of these cars was still evident. Even though four cars went airborne in the crash, it appears that the only other major injury was a burned pinkie finger for Pippa Mann.
Of course, in one instance, it failed in the worst possible way and took from us a man clearly loved by the family that is IndyCar racing. You saw it in the sheer distraughtness on Tony Kanaan's face. You saw it in Dario Franchitti's weeping in his race car before the tribute laps. A lot of debate and soul searching will commence soon for IndyCar racing: about where they race, how they race, and what they race. For now though, it's time to remember and celebrate a great champion that was truly beloved by the IndyCar and racing community, a man who we all will miss dearly. We also think of Dan's wife and two young sons, now without a devoted husband and father, compounding the tragedy all the more.
I'll end this post with the video of the 5 lap tribute at the end of the day. Goodbye Dan Wheldon. We will never forget your enthusiasm and love for the sport and for love. It's a loss that has shaken everyone who loves IndyCar to the core.