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[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]

[The following is part one of a series about my response to death in racing, my favorite sport. I realize my main audience will not be racing fans. I will do my best to make this series accessible. Note: I originally intended to publish this particular post one year ago today, but decided not to. One year later, it fits as part one of a series. I’ve edited it slightly, but the date and timing remains the same. It’s original title: The greatest race that isn’t.]

February 18, 2001. Ten years ago today. Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Americans remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. Our parents remember the same about Kennedy’s assassination. Our grandparents remember the same about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

NASCAR fans remember February 18, 2001. http://sports.espn.go.com/rpm/nascar/cup/news/story?id=6131721

I was 13 at the time. NASCAR had been my favorite sport since 1995, and Earnhardt had been my favorite driver.

At two tracks, Daytona and Talladega, cars are restricted to run under 200 mph for safety reasons.  The cars do not have enough power to pull away from each other, so by drafting (riding in the air stream behind another car) many cars can stay in a big pack.

NASCAR changed the aerodynamic package of the cars before this particular race. There was expected to be a lot of passing and the cars could easily stay together. This race was expected to be perhaps the greatest Daytona 500 ever due to the aero rules package. For the first 199 laps, I think it was among the greatest ever.

I was watching from my home in Ohio. My family was not really interested in NASCAR so they were off doing their own thing. I loved the race. There was a lot of passing, and my favorite drivers were doing well. Dale Earnhardt was running up near the front the entire race, and his own race team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., had drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. near the front, too.

In the final twenty laps, Michael Waltrip took the lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in second, Dale Earnhardt was in third. No one knew it at the time, but Earnhardt had planned for those three drivers to get up front and stay single file. Because it was so easy to pass, if those drivers did not work together (cars run faster running when they stay in line than when side by side), they would have a hard time winning. Earnhardt blocked and blocked all the drivers behind them to keep them from passing. It worked. On the final lap, Waltrip led, Junior was in second, Earnhardt was in third. No one could get to Waltrip or Junior. Waltrip won, Junior finished second. Waltrip’s older brother Darrell was in the Fox broadcasting booth cheering his brother to victory, “You got it, You got it, YOU GOT IT! MIKEY!! ALRIGHT!!” The other drivers finally did get along side Earnhardt. A 1-2-3 finish was slipping out of his grasp. He wanted to finish third, so he continued to try and block. In the last corner, he tried to slip ahead of driver Sterling Marlin, but Marlin was still there. Earnhardt cut across Marlin’s front bumper, lost control, and crashed in the final corner. No big deal, he had crashed in worse looking crashes before.

Michael Waltrip hadn’t won a race in all the 462 NASCAR races he had raced before. In his first race driving for the great Dale Earnhardt, he won the biggest race of all. I liked Michael Waltrip and was so happy when he won! Later I looked at a piece of paper I had made where I listed all the drivers I rooted for, and saw I had chosen Waltrip as my pick for an upset winner. Earnhardt, as his car owner, was supposed to come to victory lane and celebrate with him, but he didn’t. It looked like he might be hurt.

I was concerned when Earnhardt was last shown by Fox as being carried away in an ambulance. I knew he was hurt, but I didn’t think he was dead. I kept watching TV for any potential news report of his condition. It wasn’t until the evening local news where they announced he was dead. I cried. My family had tears, too. When my best friend heard from his dad, he called me to talk about it. Earnhardt had been his favorite driver, too.

It was NASCAR’s biggest tragedy ever. Earnhardt’s death was covered extensively by all major news networks for weeks (the announcement, the reaction, the investigation, the implications). It was the first time a personal hero of mine was killed.

[part 2: It doesn’t get any easier the second time]
[part 3: Safety is a process]
[part 4: It’s worth it]