Ernest Hemingway said there were only three sports: bull-fighting, mountaineering and motor racing. The rest were only games.
Those words echoed today as the racing world mourns the death of a Champion. Daniel Clive Wheldon won his second Indy 500 just this past May in a surprise finish. It seemed to be in the bag for Rookie JR Hildebrand, but then crashed into the fourth turn wall with the checkered flag literally in his sight.
Wheldon was running 24th, after starting 34th when Wade Cunningham made a move from the outside to the inside in a heavy traffic situation. The result was a 15 car pileup, that saw the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 Champ 2005 Series Champ and 2006 Series Championship runner-up, launched into the catch fencing off Paul Tracy’s Dallara.
Wheldon suffered massive injuries and despite being airlifted to a hospital, he was pronounced dead roughly an hour after the crash. Sad news. But Monday will be flooded with stories of how motor racing is dangerous–really? No Kidding?
The sport has become incredibly safe, but consider that it still is a high speed, highly competitive, man vs man vs machine sport. These things happen. Last year, I thought Felipe Massa was killed when a spring from Rubens Barichello’s car penetrated his visor at speed–he was terribly injured, but came back to race another day. The last major Fatality in racing was when Henry Surtees, son of the great 1962 WDC John Surtees was killed in a fluke accident in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch in 2009. In F1, the last Fatality may have been it’s greatest hero, Ayrton Senna di Silva, who crashed at the famous Tamborello Curve (now a chicane) at Imola in San Marino Italy. NASCAR’s last fatality WAS It’s greatest Hero, Dale Earnhardt, who perished holding off the competition as his two cars piloted by Michael Waltrip and son, Dale Jr. took a 1-2 finish at the Daytona 500.
So yes, it has gotten safer. The fatalities are almost an anomaly and when they do happen, they are a pretty big deal. In all honesty, I think death was the major attraction and the reason NASCAR is flat and most other series are in decline may very well be because the sport has become so clinically sterile.
Let’s face it, racing is dangerous, no matter how you slice it, or put up protective barriers, run off areas, and Hans Devices, people will still die. Consider that if Wheldon had hit the Safer Barrier instead of the catch fencing, there is a very good chance that all he would be is pissed off.
Thoughts and prayers for the Wheldon family, his wife and two small kids. In condolence, know that he died pursuing his love and that he has lived more life than many of us in his short 33 years as he pushed the boundaries of man and machine.