The Hollow Ring
(This would have been a much more topical post had I made it when it was first written…when it happened….when a news reporter would have rushed his scoop to the presses…
I purposefully held it back, until now…so that I might distance myself a bit from the shock…from the “What tha….?”)
Morning broke with a beautifully clear peal on an Autumn day in Las Vegas, Nevada. Relatively distant, (though one is never far removed), from the neon jangle of the previous night’s casino heartbreaks and, to a rarer extent…the kiss of Lady Luck and elation, the roads leading to the Las Vegas Speedway were beginning to fill with race fans, crews, families and media.
Today was to be the last IndyCar race of the 2011 season in America..
Sponsors would re-negotiate their sponsorships…some would drop out due to economic conditions…others would take their places….
Drivers would vie for new contracts and engineers and crews would tear cars down, piece by piece, to try to gain an extra 2 miles per hour, or an extra lap per gallon…
The IndyCar itself would receive a design make-over for the 2012 season.
Someone would win the IndyCar open-wheel championship today…it was to be decided by the outcome of today’s race.
One driver would have to finish first…another needed merely to finish to gain that championship.
Two drivers were driving for the Herta/Curb/Agajanian team.
Alex Tagliani would handle the #98 car that had won the 2011 Indianapolis 500, while Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 500, would captain the #77 car.
Dan had accepted the race promoter’s challenge that if he started at the rear of the ‘pack’ and managed to win the race, he and a fan would split 5 million dollars.
I have since heard some say that Dan knew he couldn’t win, but I have a distinct feeling that he never looked at it that way. He loved the challenge…
To say that there was a portent of tragedy in the air would be a false dramatization, though the fact that the track itself had been designed for Nascar races, (meaning it had an overly exaggerated bank to it), was of some concern for drivers, crews and owners.
At speeds of over 200 mph, a heavily banked track is somewhat unforgiving.
Couple that with the fact that in a Nascar race, a little bumping here and there might only lead to dented metal and heated emotions, while in an open-wheel race, by the time a fender is bumped, the wheels have been ‘cast asunder’.
The day before the race, the #77 car was simply not running as gracefully…as rhythmically… as the crew had hoped, so they put it side-by-side with the #98, worked through the day and into the night and dismantled and reassembled them both, trying to ascertain just what minuscule adjustment was needed to finesse #77 into being a contender.
On the morning of the race, I had the distinct honor and privilege to record the moment as Mike and Linda Curb presented Dan Wheldon with his Indy 500 championship ring.
Dan looked like a kid, a good kid, on Christmas morning…!
The radiant joy and pride that spread across his face exuded the culmination of determination, skill, and gratitude for being asked to be a member of the team that took part in this historic Centennial year victory.
Dan never made it seem as if he was the winner…
It was his team that had won!
After the race, Dan had a dinner appointment to meet with and sign a contract with the Andretti team to become a full-time driver, taking the place of Danika Patrick who had decided to leave open-wheel racing. I’m certain there would have been some interesting commercials involving the two of them as Dan took over the Go-Daddy IndyCar sponsorship.
He was loved and respected by the other drivers and crews, and from listening to his extremely eloquent speech after winning the 2011 500, I too held him in great respect, for his skill…
and for his heart.
A mere 11 laps into the 200 lap race, the unfathomable happened. Those of us who were in the pits were first alerted by the breath-taking gasp and groan from the crowd in the grandstands.
That sound sends a heart into a throat as abruptly as a strange noise in a darkened house raises the hair on the back of one’s neck.
The cozy dreams of complacency are assaulted in an instant.
As we collectively turned to the far side of the track, the scene contained smoke and flames and unidentifiable cars flying through the air…
we created the second gasp…an after-gasp…
As the first racers came around turn four, our breaths in check, we counted…and spotted…
Here comes the #98….!
Where is #77…?
At that point, it became obvious that he was involved, or at best, held up by the ‘traffic’, but not one soul at that racetrack could imagine the awful truth that was about to unfold from the twisted wreckage.
To say that I knew Dan would be a gratuitous stretch that could only be egotistically self-serving…I only met and talked to him in the context of his Indy race, the subsequent awards banquet, and the morning of, and on the grid before this fateful race at Las Vegas. To call him my friend, would, I’m afraid, also be a stretch, though my impression from our brief meetings would lead me to believe that if I had ever introduced him as “My friend”, he would not have refuted the remark, or scoffed at my boldness.
As is now recorded in history, and by YouTube and many sports publications across the globe, against the shattered grain of the hopes and prayers of drivers, crews and fans alike…
Dan Wheldon did not walk away unscathed.
In the #98 pit when the news was broken to Alex Tagliani, a team-mate and friend, he immediately had his car removed from the track.
At the doorway to the track offices, the apprehensive drivers entered for an official meeting… and within minutes the grief-stricken friends made their way back to the track, many with tears in their eyes, and throats so full of the pieces of their broken hearts that it was difficult for them to breathe…
to try to assimilate what had just happened, and join together in a 5 lap tribute to Dan Wheldon.
The last 5 laps of the year…
The hardest five laps that many of them had ever driven.
I later heard a hotel clerk remark that ‘at least he died doing what he loved’, and my first reaction was,
“No!…No!…we are supposed to LIVE doing what we love”
Then I heard Tony Kanaan, one of Dan’s close friends say,
“But I think if you asked everyone in this field how they would want to go, that’s the way. If I could choose I’d do the same. But right now I can’t describe the pain.”
And it made a little more sense.
If sense can be made of the surreal.
As if the surreal can or should ever make sense….
This year the newly modified Indy car is being called “DW12″ in honor of Dan who played an integral part in the testing and modifications of the vehicle.
The 2012 Indianapolis 500 will take place this coming weekend and I’m certain that Dan’s presence will be strongly felt by drivers, crews and fans alike…just as his presence will be at every IndyCar race for years to come.
Although he has left behind his wife, two children and fans and friends the world over, he did not take with him his legacy.