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Pedley: Piecing Together A Lousy Sunday

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 17 2011

Memorials from fans appeared at the gates of Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the death of Dan Wheldon on Sunday. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Some random, rambling thoughts after having a day and a night to think about the death of driver Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday:

– The uh-oh response in the gut hit me as I watched the IndyCar field come out of Turn 2 at LVMS on the first lap of the race. It as one of those long camera shots which showed the field coming head on up the back stretch.

With cars under full power for the first time, those shots do two things that shots from the side do not: In one sense, they tone down the speed and hence the potential for violence; but they also highlight the potential for violence as they show the dust and debris being blasted into the air, and the view of sideways mayhem behind the leaders.

(The personal data bank readily recalls the time Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR boss Fred Nation gave me a ticket to a seat down low at catch fence level in Turn 1 to watch the start of a 500. It gave me a view you never see from the press box. The cars, barely visible coming out of Turn 4 suddenly took the green flag and it looked like an explosion as everything that was not nailed down near the track went straight up in the air. Out of that tornado of debris at high volume came the cars at 225 nose to tail, side pod to side pod.

At one instant, they were 500 yards away. I blinked and they were 30 feet away and with such violence

Dan Wheldon loved winning at Indy.

and speed that it almost sucked the breath out of the lungs. And then, they were gone and odd silence reigned. Then the adrenaline kicked in. Incredible. Scary.)

Any way, that camera shot at Vegas, hit me in the gut. The field of 34 cars just kept coming and coming out of Turn 4 and behind the first couple of cars was a type of mayhem which looked less safe than at Indy. Cars were weaving and darting and climbing up and down the track.

You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to foresee the potential for problems.

In NASCAR, except at Talladega and Daytona, the field tends to string out after the first lap as centrifugal force sends the cars up toward the wall  and into single file in turns. But in Indycars, the downforce on the light cars keeps them glued to the track. They can run high, low and anywhere in between. Even on flat tracks and Vegas is far from flat.

So as the first several laps wore on, there was no separation and the oh-oh feeling remained, like the cars, glued in place.

And then the biggest, most violent crash I had ever seen happened.

– Draping the crashed cars in tarps does not always mean the worst, so a smirked at “expert” bloggers who were immediately saying some had died because of that. In open wheel, they will wrap cars in tarps to keep fluids from draining onto the track when they tow the cars away. And yes, replays did make it

Track workers give thumbs up to drivers as they take a five-lap salute to Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a wreck earlier in the day.

appear that Wheldon’s portion of the wreck looked unsurvivable. But, I’ve seen a lot of other wrecks – on TV and in person – that looked unsurvivable in that sport (Kenny Brack at Texas and Mike Conway at Indy, to name two) and while the drivers were injured, they were not killed.

So I held out hope on Sunday.

Then they showed Danica Patrick burst into tears just a couple of minutes after she had been smiling during an interview. And I knew. I dug out the media guide for bio info.

– I had interviewed Dan Wheldon I don’t know how many times. But I did not know him and can’t really remember a defining interview.

So, I will let a couple of RacinToday colleagues who did know him better – Mike Harris, the long-time Associated Press racing beat writer, and John Sturbin, the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame beat writer – do the remembrances.

Oddly, the only real memory I have of dealing with him was the first time I met him. I was at the Kansas City airport returning from a race somewhere and Wheldon, a rookie, was coming to town to test. He was looking quite lost in the airport and I asked him if he needed a ride anywhere. Nope, somebody, he said, was supposed to pick him up but he was still wandering around after I got my bags.

“You sure about the ride?”

“Yep”.

I will say I did like working with Wheldon and interviewing him. Enthusiastic, articulate and open. The holy trinity of interview traits for sports writers.

– A nod of appreciation for the job ABC/ESPN did on Sunday. Announcers Marty Reid, Scott Goodyer

Dan Wheldon and wife Susie.

and especially Eddie Cheever handled it all with professional dignity. No jumping to conclusions, no finger pointing, no reporting of rumors. They simply moderated a very tough situation and let it play out naturally.

And thanks, ABC/ESPN for not trying to jump drivers after the meeting in which they learned the fate of their friend/colleague. Some electronic “journalists” attempt to show us all how hard they are as “reporters” by jamming a microphone in there and asking the “tough” questions.

The only real question was answered by INDYCAR boss Randy Bernard in a brief press conference at 6 p.m. ET.

The only answers needed were written on the drivers’ faces when they left the meeting with Bernard and agonizingly climbed back into their cars for the five-lap salute to Wheldon.

The only hitches came during the Bernard press conference when twice, their audio failed to pick up his most-important of words.

I was very glad at the end of the evening that the race was not on Versus.

– Personally, glad I was not there. Covered way too much of that kind of thing. Contrary to what some

Dan Wheldon and a young fan.

fans and some athletes may think, nobody I have ever met in a press room enjoys reporting on tragedy. The pros put their heads down, set their jaws and go to work on the story. But enjoy it? Enjoy talking to people who have just lost a friend/colleague/hero? It sucks.

I was exchanging emails with good friend Terry Blount of ESPN.com – who was on site – during the waiting. I wished him luck at the end of the last email. I knew what would be racing through his mind as he tried to get to sleep last night in his hotel room.

– Finally, INDYCAR, in a year during which it made so many bad decisions, made the right decision by ending the race after the wreck.

Neither fans, officials, crews nor especially (ESPECIALLY) drivers were in the kind of shape required to continue racing.

If not an insult to Wheldon and his family to continue the race, it would have been a slap in the face to all who consider themselves caring human beings to continue on at Vegas.

Later, Dan.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, October 17 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Stann says:

    I miss my friend Dan. We became close friends when I worked at Kansas Speedway as PR Director and stayed in touch after I left the racing industry. No one from the media, the Series or the tracks like to go into this crisis communication mode. Great perspective on that angle. Well-written Jim. Thanks…