Two-Time Indy Champ Dan Weldon Dead at 33

J. Conrad GuestCorrespondent IOctober 17, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 30:  Dan Wheldon of England, driver of the #98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara Honda gestures to photographers during the 95th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

One word perhaps best describes the terrible crash on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: horrific. 

My dad took me to my first Indy 500 in 1966. I was 9 years old. He joked that he never watched a race to see a crash; but if it had to happen, as inevitable as they seemed, he wanted it to happen in front of him. 

Dad was a marine who fought on Okinawa and never shared with me any of what he saw in World War II. He was at Indy in 1955, the year Bill Vukovich was killed while trying to become the first man to three-peat at Indianapolis. Dad saw that crash. I watched it on YouTube. It, too, was horrific. 

But not like what I saw at Las Vegas. 

I’ve been following motor sports for a lot of years and I’ve never seen anything like this, and I hope I never do again. 

Before the dust settled and the last wrecked car came to a rest, fifteen cars were toast, and two hours later Dan Weldon, the likeable bloke from Great Britain, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. 

I was at Indy this year. I don’t get down as often as I did when I was younger. The sport has changed, and not all for the better. The coverage on TV is great, with in-car cameras, blimp shots, etc., and I don’t tolerate the heat and humidity as well as I did in my youth. 

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 17:  A tribute to Dan Wheldon, driver of the #77 Dallara Honda, is displayed on a Las Vegas Motor Speedway sign on October 17, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dan Wheldon, driver of the #77 Dallara Honda, was killed during the Las Vegas
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

But it was the 100th anniversary of the speedway, and that was worth buying a ticket and making an all-night drive from Michigan with three buddies to enjoy the greatest spectacle in racing. 

Dan Wheldon won, for the second time, in a wild finish. 

And now he’s gone, leaving behind a wife and two sons. 

And so we stop, take a collective breath, wipe a tear from our cheek, and say a prayer for Danny and his family. The world continues to turn, life goes on and we hope, wherever Dan Wheldon is, it’s a much better place and that he’s happy. 

The trouble with all those platitudes is that Dan Wheldon was already happy and he was in, if not a better place, at least a place in which he’d made his dreams come true: two Indy championships, a beautiful wife and two healthy boys. What more could he want? 

Excuse me while I try to wrap my head around this without spouting more platitudes about not being able to understand God’s will or that sometimes bad things happen to good people. 

Let’s try this one: a hero dies but once; a coward dies a thousand deaths. Dan Wheldon was a hero to many of his fans; perhaps to his wife, no doubt to his young sons. It’s sad that yesterday he got caught up in someone else’s battle and paid the ultimate price. 

Driver mortality was much higher in motor sports a few decades ago. As the speeds have escalated, driver safety has improved, so I suppose it’s a testament to technology that Wheldon was the only life lost yesterday. 

Still, to say, “it could’ve been worse” brings little comfort to Wheldon’s family. 

One wonders what it is that draws men and women to step into a speeding missile, surrounded by volatile fuel. 

The thrill of speed? The competition … to go faster than the guy ahead of you? Maybe even to cheat death? 

But no one ever cheats death, not really. It’s in our genes. 

I recall many years ago A.J. Foyt responding to an interview question about the dangers associated with racing. Foyt, who became the first man to ever win four Indy 500s, replied, “I’d rather die at the speedway than die of cancer.” 

Foyt had watched his father die of cancer, and it wasn’t pleasant. I know, because I watched my own dad succumb to the disease the health care industry has been on the brink of finding a cure for, for years.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” 

Maybe that’s the difference between heroes and cowards, or successful men and failures. Can any of us picture Elvis at age 75? How about James Dean? 

Dan Wheldon loved driving race cars, so I guess you could say he went to his grave without the song still in him. 

Still, I can’t help but wonder, if we could ask Dan Wheldon right now if he’d rather die racing at the age of 33, or die of cancer at a ripe old age, what would he say? 

I’m sorry, but this will never make sense.