Saturday, October 22, 2011

The 13th Lap : Dan Wheldon (1978 - 2011)

Editor's note: The following is a contribution to AcrossTheBricks from our good friend Adrian Rickard, who was in attendance of the IZOD IndyCar World Championships in Las Vegas as well. I found it to be a very moving piece, and I have the utmost gratitude and respect for Adrian (@rkid84) allowing me to share this tremendous piece of writing.
This is something new to me, I have never put pen to paper, or finger to button to reflect on a life lost in such tragic circumstances, nor do I think do I want to again.  I have been a motorsport fan for over 15 years, and in my time I have seen serious crashes on television, sadly some fatal.  But last Sunday brought my worst fear in life to a horrid reality.
I am talking about Dan Wheldon dying in a crash at the Indy Car World Championship race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  I don’t intend for this to be an obituary, there are far more talented wordsmiths who can tell you everything you need to know about Dan’s career, those who knew him both professionally and personally, many I have read in a beautiful manner from fellow competitors and those in the media.
I was sat in the grandstands towards the pit exit watched the first twelve laps unfold, good progress, Dan had made up a few spots, but as any fan of oval racing knows, 200 laps is a long time, until the thirteenth lap started, I saw one car lose its grip hit another and a pendulum effect that took out more cars than I could see.  My most vivid memories are about four or five cars catching fire, the instant flashes as contact was made with barriers, other cars, and more seriously, the fencing.  Clouds of white smoke bellowed into the clear skies, quickly turning black, this is when sudden realisation hit me that this was not just a few cars ‘coming together’ to coin a Murray (Walker) phrase, I could see that there was barely over half the cars still running the lap as the red flag came out.   The jaw dropped, eyes gapped wide open, I think I muttered ‘oh shit’ to the people sat around me.  Trying to work out the cars, who was in the pit lane, who was on the leader board, my mind wasn’t working.
Slowly (understandably), news came through on track PA who was involved, who had got out ok, and gone to the medical centre, and who we were waiting news on.   Still no news on Dan Wheldon, my phone buzzed, a text from back home in the UK, “that was a mess, Mann hurt, Wheldon trapped”.  Many drivers have spoken of the surreal nature of the events and how it looked, the same was in the stands a couple hundred meters away.
Then came the ninety minutes of waiting... there is something of a British saying, “no news is good news”, not in motorsport, drivers crash, they get out, wave to the crowd move on.  Every minute that ticked by fear overtook hope, mumblings and speculation grew, the car was tarped up (covered in a tarpaulin), others compared it to when Greg Moore was killed in the last CART race in the 1999 season with the lack of news.  Natural gut feeling took over, everyone knew it before it was announced.  A drivers meeting was called, that passed, stories of drivers breaking down crying.  I think we all knew then.
A press conference had been called, the Indycar CEO, Randy Bernard's voice came over the tannoy. I didn’t see the screens at first, the only word I heard was ‘passed’ and something about a parade, I then found out the race had been called off, this was inconsequential, I didn’t want to be there now.
Without pushing the patriotic side, there were seven British drivers in the race, I bought myself a union (jack) flag, with the intention of getting the British drivers to sign it, was going slow gave up so went for the whole field.  I had this draped over myself, just shocked, I never thought I would see a fatality at a race, let alone someone who I was a fan of and had a massive amount of respect as a person for.  Suddenly it hits you, I was gone head down, lost the battle with holding it together. A number of people, none of whom I have met before, and likely never will again came up to me consoling with me shaking hands, although the American public had taken him to heart, Dan was still a Brit.
The parade of the drivers who were still able to drive their cars around commence, to the sound of Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, it was such a heart wrenching moment, beautifully observed by all watching, twin checkers waved at the fifth and final lap.
Being parked infield I knew it was going to take a while to get out, needed to do something to keep going, I went down to the pits and paddock still draped in the flag, just as I walked in turned towards the Indycar garages I saw Martin Plowman (who drove in three races this year), who I had met earlier in the pit line prior to the start of the race in happier times, we looked at each other, eyes covered by sunglasses, but we knew what lay beneath, he grabbed my hand and we hugged, just not knowing really what to say, he checked I was ok and able to get back, which took me aback, I had just lost a favourite driver, he had lost a friend. 
For about an hour I walked around the paddock area, waiting to go back to the hotel, I managed to speak briefly with a few other drivers, expressing my sympathies and best wishes.  I was able to chat with one driver who said what the meeting was like, I won’t give details but it was hard to listen to, but understood why the decisions were made about the race.
One thing that this tragedy confirmed is what a close community Indycar is, like no other high level competition I can think of, between the drivers, their crew, teams and fans.  I was lucky to meet with other fans over the days leading up to the race, had arranged to go out to a benefit concert that Sunday night, but with events happening, I dint feel like going, so messaged them and got them together at the hotel for a drink to remember Dan and just get us through the night, 6 of us were there from all corners of the country (and world), apart from those who were related, none of us had met before this race weekend.
So a few personal recollections about Dan Wheldon, like I said before there are plenty more who can offer a more personal look at his career but I can add that I the 3 times I have met him this year he has always been great to talk to, interested and appreciated the support of someone flying across the Atlantic to support the series.  He had a great charisma and love of Indycar and beloved in what the series was doing and where it was heading (only just discussing this at the Fan Village at Mandalay Bay during a webcast), not forgetting his ability on the race track either, a series champion, rookie champion, and a two time Indianapolis 500 winner.  Most of all a caring father, son and husband, something that hits home the most having seen some great pictures of him and his family after his Indy 500 win this year.
He will be sorely missed by all those who knew him on and off the track.
A final note, the flag, I had all bar three drivers signatures on it, but I did get Dan Wheldon’s, which I got when walking around the paddock on Friday morning near his garage.  I approached him asked him if he didn’t mind, as per usual, not at all, we had a brief chat about the race when we heard a large bang, we both looked up, and back towards the back of the track, there was a brief flicker of flames from a car travelling from turn 2. He apologised that he had to go check on who it was and if they were ok, running off towards the pit area and his crew.  Little did we both know 48 hours later our attention would be focused again on turn 2.
“People ask me why, when I sign off I say 'until we meet again'. Because goodbye is so final. Goodbye Dan Wheldon.”  - Marty Reid, ABC / ESPN Commentator
Adrian Rickard

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