“stay down Rocky!”
You know those scenes, in those boxing movies, where the boxer is bloodied and beaten to a pulp, yet keeps somehow stumbling to his feet only to take another devastating blow? Well, I’m laying on the mat wondering how… wondering where the strength to get back up is going to come from, as I reel from the latest sucker punch life has cold cocked me with. (it’s been a tough couple of months personally)
Selfishly, this post will be more about my perspective than a retrospective of Dan (there are many awesome, and much better written tomes out there for that, in fact Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett’s pieces today come immediately to mind)
So bear with me, as this is the first time I am attempting to unjumble my brain and throw some thoughts down on “paper” in more than 140 characters since yesterday, so this could get lengthy/wordy and non-sequential…
As I attempted to walk out the door to go to my job this morning, I collapsed into a heap of tears due to the fact that the ugly reality of what I witnessed yesterday, the violent death of racecar driver Dan Wheldon, who I have come to personally know over the last few years, and whom I spoke to barely a few weeks ago, came rushing to the forefront of my brain as soon as I was cognitive enough to figure out what day it was and that it wasn’t just a horrible, horrible dream.
With each tweet, and facebook post and email that I lay my eyes upon in those first moments of my day, I knew I needed to just take a “me” day and try to process the last 24 hrs. So this is me processing…
Luckily my boss “gets it” … as much as anyone who is not a race fan but knows one can.
It’s hard enough to explain to non-gearheads the appeal of motor racing…
Why a lung full of car exhaust makes you heady, and the sound of 26 cars screaming down the front straight makes the hair on your arms stand up, and why some dude crossing the finish line first under frantically waving black and white flags can make you scream like a lunatic and simultaneously laugh and cry…
See, I’m struggling to remember this myself today, on a day when I can barely choke back the tears long enough to order a coffee from a stranger, because it seems almost insane to love a sport that can, in the blink of an eye, be so inconceivably and randomly cruel.
I’m not going to lie, I, like many, had an ominous feeling about yesterday’s event. It wasn’t a case of “if” a big crash would happen, but on what lap it would, and at what cost. Later, as I sat there in the aftermath feeling like a vice grip was clamped to my heart, I took a pause and actually uttered the words <insert more insanity here> “we were so lucky, it could have been much worse”
Again, those outside of the racing family look at you as though you have lost what is left of your mind and scream “how much worse than someone DYING can it get?” Well, a lot worse actually. There were 15 cars involved in that horrifying wreck. My colleagues from OWW shot a series of pictures as the crash unfolded, and as I looked at each one, I was mesmerized by the pieces of cars, and various states of airborne-ness, and photoshoppe-esque angles some of the cars were freeze framed in. Through the bits of debris, and balls of fire, I could make out the remains of sidepods and bits of flying wings coming inconceivably close to barely recognizable helmet liveries… and it made me catch my breath. Yes, we lost a driver yesterday (more on him in a bit) But 14 of our family miraculously walked away “unscathed” (in the grand scheme of what could have been)
A lot of us use the term family, which again gives those outside of the series pause. See, Racing is a small, almost incestuous community. Everyone knows everyone. Team personnel and drivers are essentially interchangeable, and most have worked with multiple teams, in multiple series, on multiple levels of competition for many years. Even those of us in the media trenches have been affiliated with multiple organizations and allegiances. So through it all, over many years, you start to associate names with those faces in the crowd, and personalities with those determined eyes peeking out at you from beneath the helmet. If you’re lucky enough, you forge friendships, and become more invested. I, for example, am no longer just taking pictures of the “driver of the number 9 car”. I’m snapping a pic of Scott, husband of Emma, and father of the lovely Poppy who waves and blows kisses at me from the stands while sitting with Grandma, and new to the family Tilly, who I knew all about before she was even born, through a conversation with her mom (Emma) about possible name choices. (for the record, when polled, I gave a nod to “Tilly”)
So when a catastrophic event such as yesterday’s happens, though I was a country away, I felt it as if I were standing in the pits, and it was my brother on that gurney.
Speaking of which, how odd and powerful, in this advent of social media, has the connection between our racing family been? Thousands of us, around the world, in multiple timezones, experiencing the same thing, interconnected virtually.
When Greg died, I didn’t even know what the internet was. I didn’t own a computer. I wasn’t a regular in the paddock. It was tragic and sad, but it wasn’t “personal”. There was a disconnect. A distance.
When Alex (Zanardi) had his accident, I was relatively new to the interwebs, and by googling for updates, I stumbled upon a whole virtual community of race fans. I was suddenly “part” of the experience. Now it was personal. Now there was a connection. There were answers, there were opinions, there was support.
Fast forward to the present day, and not only am I a well ensconced part of the virtual racing community, but I am a physical part of the series family as well, with many racing friends, near and far. So yesterday, though I was sitting alone when Randy Bernard made “official” what we all knew in our hearts had come to pass, I was still “with” my racing family.
It’s a blessing and a curse. While I feel myself being lifted and strengthened by this powerful connection, I also simultaneously feel the devastating weight of the loss and the overwhelming feelings of anger and grief of my racing community/family. Perhaps that’s also contributing to why this feels so much… bigger than any of those lost before… this time it really hit too close to home.
The loss of any driver is and would be devastating. But Dan was just… so… Dan! Self-effacing and the first to pile in on the joke, even if it was on him! Charming, and down to earth, with a cheeky glint in his eye, and a cocky unedited take on things. As much as it was easy to “take the piss” on his glasses, and his shoes, and those TEETH, for some reason, when you were in his presence, that all seemed normal. It worked. He never made you feel like you were intruding or being a bother. Quite the opposite actually. He made you feel like you belonged in his world.
This loss is bigger than just losing a driver. He was an ambassador. He was the face of the underdog. He was the “make lemonade” guy. Kelly, the wife of my racing friend Gregg, brought up such a great, and sad point. Any new fans to the series this year likely will feel this loss just as deeply as us lifers, as they probably got to know and felt more connected to Dan more so than most of the other drivers due to his presence in the booth, and all of the publicity surrounding the new car and the Las Vegas Challenge.
Speaking of publicity, the challenge, etc… It would be easy, in the heat of the moment, to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Randy Bernard. (and there will be many who unfortunately will) But before we throw the man under the bus for this (no worries, there will be plenty of time for retrospection and condemnation by the masses over the hiatus) please spare a thought for what he had to deal with and do yesterday, and the massive stones it took to step out, alone, and make the most awful statement anyone should have to make, with such class and composure.
When I attempted to sleep last night, to no avail, I was vacillating between the thought of trying to move forward, or just saying “fuck it” and moving on to something else.
I questioned whether or not I still have the fortitude for this.
The risk is too high.
The losses too devastating.
I am too close. Too aware. Too invested.
Then I thought, what a disservice to Dan, and Greg, and Paul and Tony, and all of those gone because they were laying it on the line doing what they loved.
What we love.
I love motor racing.
I love getting to the track before the sun comes up, and hearing the hissing of the tires on pitlane, and the engines being run in the paddock before the gates are even open.
I love the expressions on the faces in the crowd during a session.
I love the little nuances and minute tweaks that can make the difference between starting at the back or getting on poll.
I love the David and Goliath battles on and off track.
I love the history, and the future, and everything in between.
And most of all I love my racing family.
My fellow gearheads, with methanol/ethanol in their veins, who get all of the above.
Yes, yesterday was awful.
The most vengeful display of everything that is and can go wrong in our sport.
But in the aftermath it was also a beautiful testament to the strength and commitment of our community.
So, when that field of IndyCar drivers lines up on pitlane in St. Petes in March 2012, I will be there. And my heart will hurt for the drivers who aren’t in the cars and the drivers who are and are missing their “brothers”. But then I will smile and picture Dan and Greg, and the rest of the gang, watching over us, Dan proudly grinning that megawatt smile from ear to ear, cockily poking Greg in the ribs while bragging that “those new cars are gonna kick major ass this season all because of me”
Goodbye Dano and don’t worry, Oliver and Sebastian will know what an amazing man you were, because we won’t allow them to ever forget.