Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sports / Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011

I don't follow IndyCar racing that closely these days, but there are a few drivers who I know and pay attention to. Dan Wheldon is one of those drivers.

Or rather, was one of those drivers. Wheldon passed away earlier today after suffering injuries in a crash that involved 14 other cars and eventually, following the news of his death, led to the cancellation of the rest of the race.

This is without doubt a terrible loss for Wheldon's wife Susie and the couple's two sons, Sebastian and Oliver. It is also a terrible loss for the wider family of IndyCar competitors and fans, and a huge blow to the sport of racing as a whole.

Dan was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (in 2005 and this season), who also had 14 other wins and five poles to his credit in a career that ended during his 128th IndyCar start. He had also driven his way to the IRL Championship in 2005, after having been named the IRL Rookie of the Year in 2003. So his accomplishments are certainly memorable. Unfortunately, as in too many other cases, Wheldon may end up being remembered more for his untimely demise than for his victories on the track.

Racing is always dangerous, of course. The very nature of strapping oneself into a 200 MPH ground-based missile and fighting the laws of physics for two or three hours lends itself to the possibility of bad things happening very quickly. Yes, the various racing authorities have made great strides in pursuit of safety over the past few decades - in open-wheel racing, this came about especially after the loss of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Cars were slowed down, improvements in car construction were made, and tracks were reconfigured or (in extreme cases) abandoned if safety was not found to be the uppermost concern.

NASCAR's loss of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 eventually led to further innovations like wider acceptance and improvement of the HANS device, as well as the creation and near-universal application of the SAFER barrier system. It has since become rather commonplace to see what would once have been regarded as horrific crashes end up with the drivers involved being dazed, bruised and occasionally bloodied, but rarely ending in loss of life or limb.

Today, then, proved to be the unfortunate exception. Thankfully, IndyCar decided to simply end the race after a five-lap tribute by the remaining drivers rather than make any further announcements or decisions. This was supposed to have been the season-ending spectacular after all, with a possible $5 million prize for any "non-regular" driver (Wheldon included, in this case) who managed to pull off an upset win.

In the end, it was very much the wrong kind of way to finish out a season marked by a number of controversies. This is not the place to hash out such debates, though I may go into that at a later date.

For now I'll just say that Dan Wheldon, a champion in every possible sense of the word, will be missed.

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