Once tragedy strikes like it did yesterday when reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon lost his life, the natural instinct is to try to find who or what is to blame and ask why.
The simple answer to both questions is racing in and of itself is dangerous. It always has been and will always be. Whether you want to admit it or not, we all know that’s part of the allure of the sport.
However, that doesn’t mean we don’t grieve when tragedy strikes.
Wheldon was a talented driver who twice piloted cars to victory in the most prestigious race in the United States. He was a charismatic spokesman for a series struggling to find its way back into the American sports landscape, and by all accounts a wonderful husband and father.
But Wheldon at his core was a racer. With that comes the knowledge that when you climb behind the wheel, you do so with the awareness that you’re putting your life in constant peril.
Although racing is far and away safer than at any point in its history, it still comes with inherent risks.
No matter what safety measures are put in place or how safe a car is constructed, in actuality it doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day unforeseen things can and will continue to happen.
Something Wheldon was all too aware.
Before Sunday, the last IndyCar fatality was in the 2006 opening season event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the final practice session, rookie Paul Dana coming off Turn 2 struck the disable car of Ed Carpenter. The 30-year-old Dana did not survive his injuries. When the 300-mile race was run later that day, the winner was none other than Wheldon.
If Wheldon needed further a reminder of the dangers of his occupation, his car owner Sunday was Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar winner whose career came to a halt after a preseason testing accident left him a quadriplegic. Ironically, Schmidt’s lone series victory came on the same track which claimed his driver’s life.
Call it an occupational hazard if you will, but to become a championship winning driver which Wheldon was, means accepting the risks.
But that doesn’t make Wheldon’s death any less tragic.
Running 34 cars wheel-to-wheel on a mile-and-a-half track with speeds in excess of 215mph is a recipe for disaster. Series officials, drivers, members of the media and fans alike all knew this. Yet, despite their collective misgivings, everyone still gathered Sunday preparing for the season-ending IndyCar World Championships.
On lap 12 everyone’s biggest fear turned into a harsh, cruel reality.
A 15-car incident which saw multiple cars fly through the air, and in its wake left a debris field resembling a war zone, cost the sport one of its biggest and brightest stars.
None of us expected it to happen. Certainly no one wanted it to happen. But when it did, no one was surprised that it did happen.
That’s what makes auto racing different than any other sport. This is why the quote once uttered by Ernest Hemmingway rings so true.
“Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports … all others are games.”
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media/Getty Images