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Merely Mortal

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Dan Wheldon's death reminds us of the risks inherent in racing. Photo: IndyCar Media

Sunday, we were all reminded that the sport we know and love has a dark side.

As race fans, we understand that the thing that makes our sport so exciting and so fun to watch is the same thing that makes it so dangerous.  The shear speed and thrill of nose-to-tail racing at such high rates gives the sport its excitement.

It also gives it its dangers, and, in Sunday's IndyCar race, the excitement gave way to the danger.

Just 11 laps into what was supposed to a celebratory end to the IZOD IndyCar Series' season, things went horribly wrong.  Sebastian Saavedra appeared to make a small amount of contact with another car and ended up sliding sideways through turn 2, where all heck broke lose.

Unlike stock cars that hold their own like a passenger car, Indy cars are designed to break apart and spread the impact out and away from the driver, whose body is exposed to the open air.  However, there's a limit to where that works and where it doesn't.

In the case of the 15-car pile up, some cars separated as expected, but others did not.  At speeds of about 220 miles per hour, there just wasn't enough time for the drivers to get out of the way or even anticipate the upcoming wreck.  Two of the cars, those of Will Power and Dan Wheldon, had nowhere to go and more or less launched off of the sideways cars in front of them and careened airborne into the wall and catch fence.

Power walked away from the crash.

Wheldon did not.

A few hours after the horrific incident with the race still under a lap 13 red flag from the wreck, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard delivered the difficult news that Wheldon had passed away due to the injuries suffered in the crash.

As is the case in most untimely deaths, those still living are always left to grab at the straws and try to put an explanation to something that can't be explained.

Some that don't follow INDYCAR as closely are quick to blame the build of the car.  It's a valid point, but again, there were 15 cars totaled in the wreck at over 200 mph.  Fourteen of the drivers are walking today.  There's no reason to single out the Indy car design as the sole factor.

Most closer to the sport criticize the design of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  The track is big enough to go full throttle and banked enough to keep that pace pretty much throughout, yet the tightness of the track and the banking make it nearly impossible to avoid a wreck at the speeds the drivers were going.

Again, that's a valid point, but we're all trying to find something insightful or defining.  We're trying to justify why this specific crash had a fatal outcome in comparison to others.  We're all ignoring the reality.

It's racing.

Unfortunately, it's just an inherent risk of racing a car at such a high speed.  It's not something anyone has any control over and it's not something anyone thinks about before the race starts.

Drivers don't go out there and think about the repercussions of a crash.  They're athletes; they're programmed to ignore the risks of their sport and go perform.  Just like you when you played junior varsity soccer, you didn't enter a game thinking you could blow out your knee, you just went out and played.  Drivers never enter a race and think about the possibility they could suffer a serious injury in a crash, they just go drive!

It's times like these we're reminded that we're merely mortals.  Hopefully, we'll never see a fatality again in the Sprint Cup Series or the IZOD IndyCar Series or the Nationwide Series or the dirt track in the next town over.  But, death is an unfortunate and unavoidable risk that comes with the excitement of motorsports.

On Sunday, Dan Wheldon did what any driver in auto racing would have done.  He got behind the wheel of a car to do what he loved most and raced in front of a national audience.  Eleven laps into that race his passion met the risk of the sport and he lost his life.

However, he'd done the same thing many times before and won two Indianapolis 500s (including in 2011) and the 2005 series championship.  He didn't think about the risks in those races and he didn't think about the risks on Sunday.  If he had, he never would have been the race car driver he was.

Sadly, Wheldon is no longer with us, but, as race fans, we should remember him as a great driver that shouldered the risk of our sport and went out doing what he loved.

RIP Dan Wheldon.

-JS