Pedley: Wheldon Will Be On Minds At Talladega

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 21 2011

Dan Wheldon will be on the minds of a lot of people this weekend at Talladega. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD indyCar Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Today, from a NASCAR track located in small town in central Alabama, we are going to hear a lot about a man from England who drove Indycars. It will be kind of odd, but also very understandable.

Why will Dan Wheldon and his death during the season-ending IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway be on the minds of teams and drivers at Talladega this weekend? Why were NASCAR types talking about it a mid week and why will NASCAR teams  this weekend be honoring a person who never drove a NASCAR vehicle?

For several very understandable reasons. In no particular order:

– Wheldon’s personality. The man had charisma by the barrel. To meet him, was to be infected by that. Even after he moved from his 20s into his 30s, he had that youthful exuberance that makes friends in a hurry. Oh, Wheldon could be very intense. Especially on the job. His obsessions could drive crew members, teammates and owners nuts. But that smile and joy…

And a lot of NASCAR folks got to know Wheldon. The paths of drivers from differing series cross more often than one might expect. One of the last times I had a long talk with him was at the North Carolina

Dan Wheldon.

race shop of Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team. It was during the annual January media tour back when Wheldon was driving a Ganassi Indycar. He was there being fitted for a seat. Very few of the NASCAR media corps noticed the laddish Brit standing at the back of the shop. But Ganassi crew members surrounded Wheldon and the tone was light and racing-oriented. NASCAR garage dwellers knew Dan Wheldon.

– It’s Talladega week. The NASCAR teams and drivers will be at the home of the Big One. They think about wrecks and weirdness every time they go to the high-banked, 2.66-mile oval where so many scary moments have occurred in the past and are assured to happen again at some point in the future.

Heading to Talladega the week after what many veterans are calling the worst Big One they have ever seen is horrible timing. The anxious – and very unpleasant – feeling I got when I watched Talladega races during the big-packs era was a close cousin to the feeling produced by IndyCar races at ovals like Texas, Kansas and Homestead-Miami. From start to finish, those places produced more tension than thrills in my gut. You knew one micro-second lapse in judgement on somebody’s part could produce deadly disaster.

One can only imagine what it’s like for family, friends and crews of the drivers. Some drivers say they enjoy racing at Talladega. All, I think, breath easier after the races are over.

– The Wheldon crash was dramatically horrible. Danica Patrick was right on the money when she said it looked like a computer-generated movie effect. Cars flying and shredding and burning filled the biggest of high-def big screens. The scene was shown from front, side, rear and in-car.The most bizarre Hollywood scene came from in-car cameras as drivers drove back through the wreckage before being red-flagged to the pits. Unidentifiable burning chunks of chassis, suspension parts, composite panels were spread out for hundreds of yards. It looked like an airplane had crashed.

Dale Earnhardt’s wreck at Daytona in 2001 was captured live and on replay as well. But as shocking and as significant as that event turned out to be, it was not as viscerally wrenching at Wheldon’s. As you watched replays of the Earnhardt wreck in the days afterward, you couldn’t believe it was severe enough to take a life. As you watch Wheldon’s wreck, you know there was no way to survive it.

For those reasons and more, the events at Vegas will be on people’s minds this weekend. We got previews of that during mid-week NASCAR teleconferences and interviews. Jeff Gordon was featured on Wednesday’s teleconference and many of the questions put to him were about Vegas and Wheldon and Talladega and safety. Jimmie Johnson talked about the subject with reporters and former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip talked to RacinToday’s Larry Woody about it.

This weekend, all will talk about.

Some will surely say we should honor Wheldon and move on. It’s over, it’s done. Next.

Me? I think in this era of short attention spans it’s good that people will be discussing this man and his life and his death at a track and in a series which he never directly contacted. Dan Wheldon was not a fashion statement, an Ugg Boot that is popular one week and sent to Goodwill the next.

A lot of good came out of the Earnhardt tragedy because people would not immediately move on. Maybe keeping discussions about Wheldon will also save a life or two somewhere down the line.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 21 2011
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