The Dark Side Of Motorsports And The Racing Brotherhood

On June 22, 2008, I sat down and wrote a blog entry about what I called the dark side of being a race fan. A day earlier, the racing world had lost the NHRA's Scott Kalitta in a crash in Englishtown, N.J. as he attempted to qualify for that weekend's Lucas Oil Supernationals.

As I wrote, I prayed both literally and in the text that I would never have to write something like that or even revisit those feelings again.

Instead, like everyone else in the racing community, I'm grieving the loss of a great champion.

As has been made more than clear, the crash that took the life of Dan Wheldon is a reminder that as much as we love this sport, it is still dangerous especially when you're dealing with an open-cockpit race car. It is also a reminder that, as much as we each love some of the sport's participants and love to hate some of its others, those participants are still human beings with people who love and care about them not as racing drivers but as their blood relation or close friend.

Tragedy, of course, is nothing new in auto racing, but it had thankfully become a bit of a rarity courtesy of safety advances made in the last 20 years. The price it took to reach that point included drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Kenny Irwin, and Blaise Alexander in stock cars, Greg Moore, Gonzalo Rodriguez, and Tony Renna in Indy-type cars, the greatest F1 driver of all-time in Ayrton Senna, and NHRA racers like Kalitta, Eric Medlen, and Darrell Russell.

As tough as those fatalities were to bear for fans of each particular racing discipline, they brought on safety revolutions that helped prevent even more drivers from perishing in a number of awful looking crashes. In fact, while the NHRA's top divisions had lost three drivers in accidents on its straight-line tracks since 2004, there had not been a fatality in a major closed-course race weekend since Alexander's death in an ARCA race at Charlotte in October 2001 (Renna died in a testing crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2003).

That streak of luck ran out Sunday, and the racing world lost a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and the fourth-winningest driver in the 16-year history of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Now we are left once again to ponder that dark side of being a motorsports enthusiast, the possibility that the lives of our heroes could be snuffed out right before our eyes.That kind of risk is unique to our sport. Yes there can be gruesome, life-altering injuries on a football field and baseball player Ray Chapman was killed during a game by a pitched ball in 1920. Still, it is inarguable that racing drivers face risks far greater than those standing before today's NFL or Major League Baseball players or the participants in any other sport, for that matter.

It is also inarguable that, more so than any other sport, racing is a true community across all disciplines that includes the drivers themselves, their crews, their sponsors, series officials, reporters, and fans. Our common love of automobile racing creates a fraternity, even a brotherhood, and when any one sect of that brotherhood is left to grieve, the rest of the racing community grieves right along with them and lifts them onto its shoulders.

As such, while those of us who identify ourselves as primarily followers of stock car racing offer our prayers and condolences do Dan's family, we must do the same for the IndyCar Series, its other competitors, and its fans who have lost one of their own.

None of us know when our time will be up. Nobody woke up Sunday knowing that we would lose Dan Wheldon in an accident. All we can do now is pray for his family and friends and try to find solace in the fact that, while we are at a loss for answers as to why what took place had to happen, the Good Lord knows what He's doing and Dan is up there with Him now.

In a personal closing, Sunday's events did bring about an answer to at least one question, though a quite trivial one in view of the tragedy.

This past May, I had taken to following J.R. Hildebrand's progress during the month has he prepared for his first Indy start. While I didn't anticipate a victory, I thought it would be neat to see how well the potential next great American open-wheel driver would do. I watched his position throughout the race, and as it became clear that he would pass Dario Franchitti for second place and Bertrand Baguette would require one more pit stop, I allowed myself to think that he might actually score the win.

Of course, J.R. slammed the wall off the last turn as he tried to pass Charlie Kimball's car, allowing Dan to sneak through and win his second Indy 500. While Bryan Herta, a longtime personal favorite, was the owner of Dan's car, I was crushed for J.R. and had pondered many times in the months since that last lap why that had to happen.

Now I know.

Godspeed Dan. We'll miss you.

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