A spark was extinguished when he was killed at the Las Vegas season finale.
It’s been three years since we lost Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It was a strange day, just for starters, with way too many cars on that 1.5mile oval as IndyCar ushered out its old IR07 Dallara chassis, its singlemake engine formula and brought a new era into play.
That Wheldon had been the person largely responsible for development of the new car that would be introduced at his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida six months later was appropriate; he was an exceptional tester, had no fulltime ride in the 2011 series despite winning the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 a few months earlier and understood the needs of drivers and teams in working with a new chassis.
$5 million incentive
Wheldon was driving from the back of the field in an attempt to win a huge $5 million prize if he could make his way to the front and win the season finale at Las Vegas. With so many drivers of differing talents in the finale, Wheldon’s task was far greater than it would have been had he simply been driving to his capabilities, suitably qualifying his car and then racing it from wherever he was slated in the field following a proper qualifying session.
Because this was the last race for the old chassis, emphasis on “old,” every single tub that could fit suspension, tires, wheels and, yeah, a Honda engine was onsite at Las Vegas. There were 34 entries on this 1.5-mile course and even Roger Penske expected 3- and 4-wide racing throughout the contest. Drivers that hadn’t contested the full season, people like Ana Beatriz, Buddy Ride, Tomas Scheckter, Jay Howard, Pippa Mann were entered and racing for pride, not points. No doubt many were looking for 2012 opportunities.
For 11 laps they raced side-by-side, 34 wide. Then came the “big one” on the 12th lap that took Wheldon’s life and ruined 15 race cars. That only Wheldon died is actually down to fate; the only other major injury of consideration was Mann’s hand. Everyone else pretty much walked away with bumps and bruises. As Paul Tracy so aptly put it, there were “a lot of young drivers that don’t even know how to react” in an accident of this sort.
We lost a spark
But we lost Dan Wheldon; we lost a spark. Susie Wheldon lost her husband while Sebastian and Oliver lost their father.
While it would be much better to remember Dan Wheldon on his June 22nd birthday, the sting of October 16 just won’t go away. Just as the pain of October 31, 1999 won’t leave us alone either, when rising star Greg Moore died at Auto Club Speedway. Or July 14, 1996, when Jeff Krosnoff died at Toronto. And Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 26, 2006.
It’s times like this when we wonder why we love such a cruel sport as motor racing. RIP #Lionheart. As long as we evoke your name you’ll always be here with us.