Topics: Dan Wheldon
Yesterday, Dan Wheldon died from injuries sustained in the opening laps of the IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In the aftermath of the incident, I heard a few drivers and commentators speak of the thrilling high one feels when behind the wheel of a race car. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much it can explain events like these.
Part of that thrill is not the speed as simply measured in miles per hour. I know some aviation nuts like to talk about the incredible top speeds a plane can do, but a Boeing 747 flies twice as fast as an IndyCar at full tilt and people play with their iPads, watch movies and sleep on jumbo jets. It's how the speed feels, the sensation as the walls rush by inches from the tires, seatbelts holding you back as your body tries to resist the change in direction.
Then there's the element of control. Roller coasters lost their appeal for me when I got my driver's license, even though what I could do in the back lots of Barrington Square wasn't nearly as fast as riding the Shockwave at Great America, there's a rush to driving on the edge of control and making it stick. I've only been up to 120mph on an expressway, and I can't even imagine going 100mph more and getting even closer to the cars in the other lanes. Having done it once I do imagine that I'd want to keep doing it for the rest of my life. I'm not the only one, as the racing world is filled with guys who just can't seem to fully retire and step out of the cars for good.
There's also the competitive nature that drives all of sports. Sure, it would have been safer to back down, but backing down doesn't win the trophies. Backing down doesn't win 2 Indianapolis 500s and write your name in the history books. Heck, backing down probably won't even get you a chance to race in the top levels of motorsports let alone win an IndyCar championship. Even those drivers who don't push their cars to the limit every lap are doing so out of strategy, they're just pushing their cars to the limit over a longer stretch of the race.
That rush isn't the only reward for the risks drivers take on the track. There is a chance to make millions of dollars, be on television, see your name on a t-shirt and most importantly, to fulfill the dream of winning the biggest races and being a part of history alongside the childhood heroes that inspired them.
I've often said that life is a balance of risk versus reward. Is the thrill of speed and victory worth the risk involved? Driving a car at 200+ mph without a helmet or a firesuit and nobody watching is an acceptable risk to some thrillseekers who drive the autobahn. Some pay money to jump out of a perfectly good airplane in hopes that some nylon rope and synthetic fabric keep their landing soft enough to keep them in one piece so that they don't get on TV.
The risks aren't for everybody. Some people are perfectly content to be competitive playing golf, or get their thrills by getting filmed for Antiques Roadshow. Simply going 220 miles an hour in an open car doesn't sound like a risk worth taking for many. But IndyCar's drivers had surrounded themselves with some of the best safety equipment and medical teams in motorsports to try and make their mark on one of the biggest events in the past decade of their sport. Despite the complaints about the track before the race, all the drivers considered the risk, weighed it against the rewards, and got out onto the track. And despite the accident, IndyCar racing won't be short of willing drivers in the coming years. There are just too many people who aren't content sitting in a cubicle and watching the world pass by from their front porch.
While the risks caught up with Dan Wheldon yesterday, consider his life's rewards. He's a 2-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, the most historic race in all of motorsports. 2005 IndyCar series champion, proclaiming him to be the best in his business that year. Loved and remembered by millions, with a permanent place in racing history established. Dan may not be there to see his children grow up or to accept his inductions into racing's Halls of Fame, but he still managed to live more in a short 33 years than almost everybody else would given a full century. He may not have survived, but he truly lived.