Sunday was supposed to be a day of racing celebration. The final race of the 2011 IndyCar in Las Vegas was set up to be a good one. A championship on the line with two men battling it out for the top spot. Danica Patrick was making her final start as an IndyCar driver before making the full time switch to NASCAR next season. Dan Wheldon had just agreed to become Patrick's replacement for next season. Wheldon also had a personal challenge on the line: win the race and get a $5 Million bonus. 11 laps in, things took a horrific turn.
On lap 12, there was a 15-car crash that sent multiple cars flying through the air like toothpicks blown in the wind and ignited several fires. As the dust settled, attention turned to one car, Dan Wheldon's. Hope turned to fear when Wheldon was air lifted from the track to a nearby hospital.About two hours later, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was the one who broke the horrific news, "IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,". Wheldon became the fourth driver in IndyCar to die from an accident on the track since 1996.
Wheldon's death sparks memories of Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. Earnhardt was a NASCAR champion. Wheldon was an IndyCar champion. He won the 2011 Indy 500, the most famous of all American races. He won the same race in 2005 en route to the tour championship. Racing has lost another champion.
Crashes are part of racing. At speeds of over 200 miles per hour, decisions are split and can be costly. Safety is of paramount importance at those speeds. IndyCar and NASCAR have taken all precautions to ensure the well-being of their athletes. In my opinion, there was nothing that could have been done in order to avoid this tragedy. It truly is amazing that more deaths do not result from some of the crashes. That is a testament to the rules and regulations put into place by racing officials.
There is nothing more sobering than death. As the news of this tragedy came down amongst the drivers on the track, a championship was the last thing on their minds. Pit road was overrun with emotion. The drivers voted to not finish the race. Instead, they returned to their cars and did a five lap tribute for Wheldon. A classy move by the drivers and IndyCar as a whole.
Death continues to remind us what we take for granted. Dan Wheldon's life should be celebrated. He was a man who was widely liked among other racers in IndyCar. He was successful at what he did and died doing what he loved. Each racer knows that their life is on the line each time they get behind the wheel and death can show up around every turn.
Dan Wheldon was 33.