By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
October 16, 2011. Forever be a day of infamy amongst open wheel racing fans, writers, and personnel.
That very day, 34 cars accepted the daunting challenge of taking the green flag for the championship race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Eleven laps later, tragedy occurred as over a dozen cars were involved in one of the most horrific accidents in history.
Not only did the incident include Will Power, who was battling Dario Franchitti for the championship, but also involved that year’s Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.
The latter started last as part of an event promotion and slowly worked his way up to 24th. A big incentive for Wheldon competing in the finale was the possibility of winning $5 million should he win.
It wasn’t meant to be as Wheldon lost his life in the melee and how I view racing changed forever.
Ten years have gone by, and his death remains the most impactful tragedy in my years of watching and later covering motorsports.
I’m not a guy that writes about dark moments, especially when it doesn’t involve me. But to this day, I vividly remember where I was and how I’ve heard about the horrific accident.
At the time, I was a 17-year-old small town kid from Washington, already having a bad junior year of high school. The only things I looked forward to were my Spanish class and watching races on TV.
On an overcast Sunday in Marysville, it was a day after Jimmie Johnson’s chances at a sixth straight title was all but gone after a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I was intrigued about the IndyCar finale at Vegas, but my family would always go to church every Sunday.
The racing fan in me didn’t like it one bit because I’d rather see it on TV than come back home hours later already knowing the outcome. Needless to say, I didn’t want to be out of the house just for one thing, especially church. There was no choice to that matter and just went, missing the finale and even forgot to record it on the DVR.
Once the one-hour service was over, I opened my Sprint HTC phone and checked Facebook. That’s where I found out that Wheldon was airlifted to a local hospital.
Quickly, I kept my eyes glued on the phone and checked for updates from SPEED and INDYCAR.
Curious to know what happened, I went to YouTube and searched for the wreck. Saying it was bad was an understatement, as it looked like something out of a movie with sparks, fire, debris, and cars literally flying everywhere.
There wasn’t anything like what happened in Turn 1. I just stood silent and once the family went to the Lakewood Costco, I kept refreshing my Facebook feed. Hoping and praying Wheldon pulls through.
Give or take, about 35 minutes later — the news I didn’t want to hear happened. I was both gutted and angry over a 33-year-old man, who I never knew, was dead. More so that Wheldon had just won the Indy 500 nearly five months prior.
Even then, I didn’t think much about Wheldon winning his second Borg-Warner Trophy. My mind was on JR Hildebrand losing that race because a rookie could’ve won the 500 in a car Wheldon drove for three years. Such feat would have to wait another five years to witness with Alexander Rossi, who brought owner Bryan Herta another Indy 500 win, the first since Wheldon.
My anger was over the fact I didn’t see the race live on TV and an instant red flag kicked in. What was my motive of watching racing?
Just to see an accident where multiple drivers were hurt or because you love the art racing as a whole provides?
If it was the former, I should’ve quit following racing. The answer to my question was the latter, but I had to question myself for a bit at Costco.
Immediately after finding out Wheldon’s death, I quickly went to the TV screens where they used to show sporting events. It’s how I watched Stefon Diggs’ touchdown that ended the New Orleans Saints’ bid at a Super Bowl run years later.
I low key changed the channel to ABC and saw the last 15 minutes of the telecast. Saw the replay where a pedestrian came stood next to me stunned about the accident.
To this day, I remember the words that came out of the man’s mouth. He stopped watching motorsports after watching the 2001 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt died after his last-lap crash in Turn 4.
I said nothing and continued being glued to the screen.
The scoring pylon only showing the 77 (Wheldon’s car number) in P1. The remaining cars parking it on pit road. Franchitti, who won another IndyCar title that didn’t matter, walking away. No matter where anyone was that day, silence must’ve been one feeling we went through.
Finally, the telecast ended with Wheldon hoisting the milk before drinking it. Because the TVs were muted, I wouldn’t find out until an hour later regarding what were the final words said on the ABC broadcast.
To this day, Marty Reid’s comments forever remain a part of my life:
“Many people ask me why I always sign off ’til we meet again?’ Because goodbye is always so final. Goodbye Dan Wheldon.”
Screen faded to a photo of Wheldon with the text saying, “Dan Wheldon 1978-2011.”
Whether it’s closing my old radio show at KUOI-FM Moscow 89.3 from 2013-16 or creating videos on YouTube, I always close with Reid’s signature sign-off. It’s very true that goodbyes are so final, and a part of my life bid farewell that day.
Every time I leave a race track covering an event, one hopes I be there again and not say goodbye.
Once the broadcast ended, we left Costco and went home. I watched Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain, finished any homework I had and slept mostly speechless. I arrived in my Spanish class and wrote 77 on the whiteboard. The class later saw the accident and people realized why I did that.
Personally, I didn’t want to see the footage again. Where I was from, not many people followed racing. In fact, I was probably the only who religiously watched it. Not much was said when my classmates saw the footage. We moved on from it and that’s all she wrote.
Now that it’s been a decade, it’s still hard to cope with Wheldon’s death. Even watching the five-lap salute still numbs my body when “Amazing Grace” plays.
If I were to ever cover a race at Las Vegas, I’ll make sure to stop by Turn 1 and reflect.
Wheldon was just more than man who was killed, he was a beloved champion. It’s what I want to remember “Lionheart” and it’s difficult sometimes to think about him.
Prior to the 105th Indianapolis 500, I went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and was in awe of Wheldon’s 2011 winning car. Reflected on what a remarkable May it ended up being for him that year.
Before the race, seeing Dan’s widow Susie and sons Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon brought some joy underneath my mask. It’s amazing seeing them at the races and their kids having amazing karting careers. Maybe one day we’ll see another Wheldon on an INDYCAR grid because the family are racers.
To this day, it’s the one of four deaths that hit me the hardest. The other three being Jules Bianchi, Justin Wilson and Anthoine Hubert — all open wheel competitors and all after Wheldon’s passing. Those deaths I still remember where I was vividly as well, equally difficult to tell.
How I view racing was never the same, especially when there’s accidents. All I hope is for a high-quality race and everyone’s okay when the race is over. Never, ever would I want to see anything like what happened on 10/16/11.
I can’t help myself but fear for anyone that wears any Vegas themed helmet like Wheldon had in his last race because it triggers dark memories.
When Eric McClure had his violent wreck at Talladega in May 2012, the dark memories kicked in even further. This was the first time ever I thought I’d be watching a fatality on live television. Fortunately, McClure survived and continued his racing career for a few more years. Unfortunately, McClure passed away early this year at the age of 42.
We’re five years removed from INDYCAR’s last death with Wilson at Pocono and three years removed from Robert Wickens’ horrific crash at the same venue. The dangers are still there, no matter how safer the sport has become.
In fact, Wheldon tested, on what would be called the DW12 in his honor, the new Indy car set to debut the following year. Safety was the driving force behind the different look. He was even going to return to Andretti Autosport, but we’ll never know how Wheldon would’ve fared with them, but his legacy lives on.
Reflecting on 10/16/11 wasn’t easy because I just couldn’t tell anyone the story of where I was that day. Now that I’ve done that, it’s another wound that’s healed. This was a death I couldn’t register too well.
Accidents may be neat captures for photographers, including yours truly, but we never want to see someone’s life in danger, let alone lose their life. Accidents are part of racing, but we all hope (no matter your stances on certain drivers) nobody gets hurt. Instead, we hope they fight another day and enjoy their passion.