Go back and look at the video of Dan Wheldon's fatal crash one more time — not the crash itself, but the moments right before it happened. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, the in-car view is that of Wheldon; we are literally seeing what he saw in the last moments of his life.
What was he thinking then?
[Video: Drivers react to tragedy]
Here was a man who'd ascended his sport's highest peaks, a man who had seen up close exactly how much this sport could give. And he knew all too well, from a business perspective, exactly how much it could take away; the day after winning the Indy 500, he was out of a job.
But did he know that he could be gone within another hundred yards? Of course he knew the possibility existed, but did it ever enter into his mind that it could happen to him?
In the online photo galleries where news organizations select pictures to run alongside articles, the Dan Wheldon gallery is heartbreaking. You scroll backward from the mournful tribute laps, to drivers like Dario Franchitti in tears, to the helicopter carrying Wheldon leaving the track, to the fiery crash itself, to Wheldon at driver intros, and finally to the most heartbreaking photo of them all: Wheldon and his wife Susie, sitting at a blackjack table at an IndyCar charity blackjack event at the MGM Grand on Friday. They're all smiles in what will be their final days together. What would they have done if they knew what lay less than 48 hours ahead? What would any of us?
And what of Wheldon's fellow drivers, both in IndyCar and in all other motorsports series? What must they be thinking now? Another inch given here and there, and this wouldn't have happened ... or it could happen to any of them. What does this mean for IndyCar itself? This is a grim reminder of how quickly this sport can devour lives, and how even the most famous drivers are as human as the rest of us. Does this tragedy put even a spark of doubt in their minds as they kiss their spouses and children goodbye before climbing into their cars? Should it?
What of his family, now without a son, a husband, a father? He died doing what he loved, yes, but that knowledge is little replacement for the man they've lost. There are those who suggest that drivers who become parents should stop putting themselves in harm's way; while that's beyond naive (we're all in harm's way, every day, many in occupations far less safety-conscious), but this question will haunt them: was it worth it, after all?
What of safety concerns? Was the track safe enough? Were there sufficient protections in place? Could anything have been done to prevent this tragedy? Certainly, IndyCar and Las Vegas will go over every inch of this tragedy in minute detail, testing physics and engineering from every conceivable angle. Maybe they'll arrive at an answer, and maybe they won't. But will we once again remember that, no matter what the protection, no matter what the safeguards, the next time is not a matter of if, but when?
[Video: Dan Wheldon's visit with Y! Sports]
And what about us, the fans? How should this weigh on us? We want speed, we want thrills and action and drama and terror, but we can't control that any more than we can control the tide. How do we, as fans, come to terms with cheering what is, in moments like this, blood for our entertainment? There will be those who use this for their own petty or shortsighted agendas, claiming that motorsports are pointless or an indulgence. And worse, there are those who will be indifferent, who saw Sunday's tragedy as part of a flow of information that included fantasy football scores and baseball playoff previews ... and simply shrugged. Do we try to make them understand the significance of this man, this moment? How can we do that when we don't even fully understand ourselves?
What does it all mean? A man has lost his life driving a car on a track. Does his death have less meaning because it wasn't an act of heroism? Or does it mean more, because he pursued his dream right into his final moments, chased his dream with a speed we can only envy?
There are answers here, but I'll be damned if I can figure out any of them.
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