The professional sports world lost a good one today in IZOD IndyCar Driver Dan Wheldon. Dan died from unrecoverable injuries sustained in the worst crash I’ve seen since we started following IndyCar about seven years ago. In a race that was supposed to feature a dual for the championship between rivals Dario Franchitti and Will Power along with a second storyline of Wheldon with a unique chance to compete for a prize of $5M.
Hope and I met Dan briefly a few days before the 2009 Indianapolis 500. He was funny and charming. We watched him win the race Iowa Corn 250 the year before, on his 30th birthday and joked with him that we were there to celebrate Hope’s 30th, as well.
People who don’t follow IndyCar don’t necessarily understand how accessible the drivers are; it’s very different than the NFL or even NASCAR. Dan was the second driver we met in person, the first being Scott Dixon who we ran into standing alone in the terminal at the Indianapolis Airport just weeks after winning his own Indy 500. It’s that accessibility and familiarity - particularly to people who live in Indianapolis (where IndyCar is a mainstream sport) that made watching the broadcast today so hard.
Dan wasn’t my favorite driver but he was one of the sport’s best. He was a character but had the racing chops to back it up. He was poised to take Danica Parick’s spot at Andretti Autosport and had just won his second Indy 500. He did commentary for a few races this year and was quite charming and was the series’ test driver for the new car coming next year. Despite the fact he was a series champion and had won Indy twice, it’s quite possible that his best days as a driver were ahead of him.
ABC’s booth crew did a good job of covering the two hours between the accident and the official announcement of Dan’s passing. It had to be tough; they had a camera in his car and actually talked to him from the car during the warmup laps. The crash was horrific and it’s still surreal to have watched it live. I don’t really have anything to compare it too though it felt a little like watching Randy Moss be interviewed on ESPN News following the death of Korey Stringer during the Minnesota Vikings training camp several years ago but it was much more intense as for most of those two hours we didn’t know the status of Dan’s health.
For anyone who watched the crash, you also have to reflect on how safe these racetracks and race cars actually are. The fact that more drivers weren’t killed or seriously injured is a testament to engineering and their skill. We see bad crashes and fires several times a season and thankfully the drivers are almost always okay.
Unfortunately, it was not to be today.
Prayers to the other injured drivers and to the entire IndyCar family. Prayers especially for Dan’s wife and his two young sons who won’t ever get to truly know their father.
Rather than continue the race, the drivers voted to end with a three-wide five lap salute to Dan's memory.