Race car drivers are larger than life to children playing with toy cars as well as to grown ups daydreaming of blasting past commute traffic. Through the prism of television and the internet, these figures loom even larger. Talented humans transformed into superheros or super-villains, complete with helmets and uniforms! Sunday’s tragedy cracked (at least temporarily) these illusions, showing us the humanity behind the helmets. To everyone else it was a sad day at the track, to us motorsports fans, it was heartbreak and a reminder that nothing is guaranteed once that green flag waves.
IndyCar is a fan friendly and accessible sport. I know of no other sport where one can pay admission and walk up to future and past champions and ask them for a photo or an autograph. It’s the equivalent of paying for a baseball ticket and strolling into the dugout! For IndyCar fans who caught Dan Wheldon’s smile in the paddock, or posed for a photo next to his hauler, that human connection will remain with them forever. I’ve been fortunate to track down and photograph most of the big names in IndyCar and never caught Dan because he was as fast in the garage area as on the track. I did see him rush to practice once and stop to give a kid an autograph though, then he gave the rest of the fans a huge grin and thumbs up. IndyCar fans will get this joke : His smile was real no matter what version teeth he was flashing.
Some will say racing is about winning, others about the thrill of competition, but to me, racing is all about machines, humans and the human spirit. Men and women are the soul of the sport and without them, the cars are just empty vessels of carbon fiber and metal. We humans are similar, we are souls inhabiting vessels given to us as gifts. Without our souls, we are just sinew and tissue, eventually to turn to dust. Dan Wheldon lived his life to the fullest and was the proverbial nice guy while doing so. Rest in peace “Lionheart” thank you for the memories and may God give solace to your family and friends in this time of sadness.