I was calling Las Vegas the fire sale race. It was the final race for the old cars, and every team wanted to race every car they had. Thirty four were entered, more cars than Indianapolis 500 entries most years. Indycars hadn’t raced there in a while. Several drivers questioned the track’s safety.
The race was the season finale. As usual, the championship would be decided. That alone should have been enough. But Randy Bernard, who had done many great things, decided this wasn’t enough. He declared a $1 million prize for Dan Wheldon, winner of the 500, if he won the race starting from last place. I never liked the idea.
First, it diminished the championship battle. Second, it was a NASCAR type gimmick. I was very disappointed that Indycar thought it necessary. Third, instead of the usual twenty or so cars, there were going to be thirty-four racing on a one and a half mile track.
Everyone expected a big pileup. Only 15 laps in, it happened. An airborne car went into the fence. It looked really bad. I couldn’t tell who it was at first, but I knew that driver was seriously injured. The broadcast team said it was Wheldon.
The times I’ve been at a track when a driver is killed, awareness is instant. There is an eerie silence that descends over the venue. Things move in slow motion. Oddly, sitting in my living room watching on television, I had that same sensation. I had been tweeting about the race with my friends. That activity halted for several minutes.
Inside sources began hinting on Twitter what I had feared. Nothing was official, but I knew that the source was reliable. We could do nothing but wait. The image of the helicopter ascending was all the confirmation I needed. It looked just the end of the movie Senna, which I had just seen a few weeks before.
That Sunday also marked the beginning of a severe decline in my wife’s condition. She had been home from rehab two weeks. Things were looking better, but in the following week, her energy slowly drained and by the following Friday, she was back in the hospital. Friends came to be with her the next Sunday so I could go to Dan’s memorial downtown.She knew it was important to me. Knowing what was coming, it was hard to sit through. She died Wednesday of that week.
I never met Dan Wheldon. I have no photos of him. I never got his autograph. But I always admired his skill, his passion, and his joy for life. Vicki had many of the same qualities as Dan.
At the five year mark, which at times feels like five minutes and other times like fifty years, I strive to live up to their standards, to embrace the joys of life, and let the little stuff go. Ten days from now I will go to a quiet place and at 11:22 say a quiet prayer of thanks, and have the strength to get through another year.