[The following is part two of a series. I realize my main audience will not be racing fans. I will do my best to make this series accessible.]

In addition to being a NASCAR fan, I am also an INDYCAR fan (Not an acronym, but all caps. I’m not sure why).  Although I have followed NASCAR more closely over the years, I spent a fair share of time rooting for Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, and others over the years. INDYCAR has historically been much more dangerous than NASCAR. Its most recent tragedy occurred on October 16, 2011.

For those who aren’t familiar with the difference, NASCAR races cars which vaguely look like sedans (called stock cars). INDYCAR races purpose built race cars that have uncovered wheels and cockpits (called open wheel or Indy cars). NASCAR’s biggest yearly race is the Daytona 500. INDYCAR’s biggest yearly race is the Indianapolis 500. IndyCar was America’s most prestigious racing series until 1996, when the series was split into two. Popularity rapidly declined. At the same time, NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed.

I turned on the TV that Sunday to see what was on. As I was flipping channels I saw a race track (Las Vegas) and quickly became excited. It was INDYCAR’s last race of the season. The race was to feature Scottish driver Dario Franchitti and Australian driver Will Power (that’s a great name, isn’t it?) battling for the championship. The race was also to feature British driver Dan Wheldon trying to win $5,000,000.

Wheldon, one of the series most talented and popular drivers, won his second Indianapolis 500 earlier in the year. In nine tries at Indianapolis, he had two first-, two second-, a third-, and fourth-place finishes. He may eventually be considered one of the best drivers ever in the Indianapolis 500. But Wheldon was not a full-time driver in 2011. The Indy 500 was a one-race deal for him. He was unemployed as a driver before and after that race. INDYCAR, in an attempt to allure NASCAR (or other) drivers to race in its season finale, offered the $5,000,000 prize. No NASCAR drivers came, and the prize was offered to Wheldon if he could start last and win.

Immediately it became apparent that something was wrong. I had tuned into the race broadcast late. The broadcasters were explaining that the race had been stopped because of a massive 15-car crash. It is not uncommon for a race to be stopped for a crash. But it was worse. All the drivers were in a private meeting with league officials. That never happens during a race. But it was still much worse. Dan Wheldon had been seriously hurt. There was no report on his condition, but he had been flown by helicopter to the nearby hospital. When a helicopter flies a driver out, they have likely suffered life-threatening injuries.

I was glued to the TV. All I could do was hope for the best (he survived) and fear for the worst (he was dead). The broadcasters were talking in hushed tones. Everyone was waiting for news about Wheldon. And why were the drivers in a meeting like that? The whole scenario felt eerie, but all I could do was wait.

Then they announced it. He was dead. One of INDYCAR’s brightest stars was dead. The race was cancelled. People at the track were crying. The remaining drivers drove five slow laps around the track in tribute to Wheldon. The crew members for each team stood along the wall facing the track. The bagpipes played Amazing Grace. And I cried. Not a lot, but tears were there. First for Earnhardt, and now for Wheldon. It doesn’t get any easier the second time.

I tried to do homework later that day, but it was hard. All I could think about was the crash. It was one of the worst crashes I’ve ever seen, and Wheldon was dead, never to return. It was so sad…

Marty Reid, the lead announcer for the race, closed the ABC broadcast by saying, “Many people ask my why I always sign off “’til we meet again.” Because goodbye is always so final. Goodbye Dan Wheldon.”

[part 1: The greatest race that isn’t]
[part 3: Safety is a process]
[part 4: It’s worth it]

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