I’m not a fan of auto racing. It’s just not my thing. It doesn’t rev my engine (hardy har har), though I understand its appeal. It appeals to a lot of people, not merely the demographic which many smart-ass Americans depict in their minds, a “grit redneck” base of which so many think when they think of NASCAR. That depiction is false. It ain’t reality. For one, Formula One is an extremely big deal in Europe. Europe, for all its faults, would never qualify as either “grit” nor “redneck.” The spectacle of power and speed, combined in competition, enthralls plenty. It gets people going. My favorite actor, Paul Newman, adored it. He raced. My favorite late-night host indulges and invests in the sport. His name is David Letterman. This mutual passion led to friendship, the lifelong kind, between Letterman and the man who played Cool Hand Luke. George Harrison loved it. It’s cars treading a track. It is a diversion. It is no less nor more arbitrary than watching men shuffle an oval “ball” around a 100-yard field, nor kicking a round ball across a 100-meter pitch, nor smacking a different round ball into gloves and onto grass upon a strangely-designed diamond. Or any other sport, any other athletic exertion, from which we devoted fans of sport take pleasure.
Dan Wheldon died today. He died plying his trade, working his job, his shingle hung out, and he didn’t even cause the crash that led to his end. He left this world due to injuries sustained by chance, bad luck, causes accumulated on the field of play that cumulated to horrific effect. I know nothing of racing. But I do recall Wheldon from his victory at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, which I watched–the only one I’ve ever watched–due to a major personal crush on female phenom Danica Patrick. Patrick and Wheldon were, at the time, teammates. Patrick was in tears today, Wheldon no longer her teammate, instead a onetime co-worker absented due to the dangers of their craft. The crash was horrific. And pure chance, its initiation minor contact between the wheel-wells of two cars whose drivers would survive. All the drivers survived, including the one whose automobile flipped high and bounced the track, aside from Wheldon. Wheldon sustained injuries, and those injuries would take him away. He was airlifted to a hospital. There was nothing to be done. He passed. He died. Back at the track, some narrow avenue in Las Vegas, his onetime rivals, former competitors, his no-longer teammates, spun five laps in his memory. The facility’s speakers unfolded “Danny Boy.” Fans wept. Drivers wept. Pit crews wept. Everyone wept. They were forced to say goodbye, so suddenly, needlessly, to one of their own. That is, and never will be, okay.
Sports are sports. They are entertainment; they are diversion. Whether driving a car upon a track for miles and hours qualifies as sport is a common cause of contention amongst those who consider their preferred athletic competitions more athletic. Those contenders likely have not considered the physical exertion that is required by so much as a drag race. It doesn’t matter. Dan Wheldon died doing what he loved, at what he was passionate, and at what he was also very good. At what he was excellent. He took the trophy at two Indy 500s. To clarify: for baseball fans, that’s two World Series. Football fans, it’s two Super Bowls. It’s two World Cups. It’s two Stanley Cups. It’s two magnificent victories. It’s two championships. I don’t give a damn about IndyCar. It ain’t, as I mentioned, for me. But I give a damn about excellence. I give a damn about success achieved by those who follow their passion. I give a damn about people whose sense of humor never hides. After Wheldon won that ’05 500, the news of notoriously-female Patrick’s high placement eclipsed the news of his actual victory. Wheldon took it in stride. I recall a picture of he and another teammate, shoulders hung with affectionate t-shirts that friendily played on their teammate’s prominence, despite, as I recall Wheldon’s tee declaring, that he “Actually Won The Indy 500.” That’s funny. That’s human. Wheldon won that second one this year, the Indy. I didn’t know that until today. I wish I had.
Rest in peace, DW. Excellence should always be celebrated, even if it leads, inadvertently or otherwise, to demise. Passion should be celebrated even more. You were both. Godspeed, good man. You’re in the land of honey. And something else.