We rarely take on a serious tone for this blog, but after a series of conversations with my father this week, I felt the need to pay respect to a classic man in the world of motorsports. At 4:54 EST on Sunday from Las Vegas Motor Speedway, IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon died from injuries sustained during one of the most horrific wrecks in the history of racing. Dan was a successful, well respected, and downright classy guy within not only the IndyCar series, but all of racing.
In ten Indy seasons, he amassed 16 wins, 43 podiums, and won the 2005 championship after setting a modern day record with six wins during the season, including the world famous Indy 500. He also finished second in the points standings in both 2004 and 2005. With the exception of maybe Jimmie Johnson, that is one of the most dominant three year span's in racing during the last decade. He actually was tied for the championship in 2005, but the tie breaker of more wins went to teammate and friend Sam Hornish Jr.
Dan went on to finish in the top five in points for the next two years, and in 2006 teamed up with fellow Indy driver, Scott Dixon and NASCAR driver Casey Mears to win 24 hours at Daytona in the Rolex Sports Car Series. Following 2007, Dan toyed with the idea of moving over to Formula One, but ultimately stayed with his heart in Indy. However, after a two win season in 2008, Dan struggled to find the winner circle the following two seasons and was replaced by a younger driver. With things looking bleak, Dan agreed to a part time race deal in 2011 that would guarantee him a chance at winning the Indy 500.
At Indianapolis, in his first start of the season, one of only three he would have the opportunity to take part in, he passed the younger driver that replaced him in 2008 on the last lap, and drove to victory. It was a shocking and unexpected turn of events that left thousands in attendance and millions watching around the world, smiling from ear to ear to see the once dominant Wheldon battling back to show he still had the goods. Following the win, Wheldon delivered an emotionally fueled victory speech in which he spoke about the difficulties of not having a full-time ride, and then nearly broke down while dedicating the win to his ailing mother who had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. That moment got me to stay a little more focused on IndyCar this season. His likable persona and dedication to auto racing made it hard for me to not love the guy and pull for him when he would race later in the year.
This started a train of though that I feel the need to discuss. Too often, auto racing, not just NASCAR, is insulted and given a backseat to "real sports". Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, and Michael Schumacher are never put on ESPN's stupd shit lists of top athletes. Hell, even a FUCKING HORSE is usually ranked above them. After Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title, "experts" scoffed and said he doesn't belong in the same category as Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby. I've always accepted people's confusion for my love of NASCAR and motorsports in general. I understand that it isn't everybody's cup of tea., but do not for one second become one of those people that find it "cool" to rip on these men who drive for a living. Maybe you think it's boring to watch cars drive around in circles, or maybe you think anybody can drive a car fast, but the truth is these guys put their lives on the line every single time they step into these vehicles, and that demands fucking respect. Tom Brady has never stepped onto the field and feared for his life. Alex Ovechkin has never skated onto the ice and thought to himself that it may be the last time he sees the light of day.
Sure, football and hockey players risk serious injury every game, but you cannot say that these men risk life and death for their fans and spectators, several times a week. Men like Wheldon, Tony Stewart, Dario Franchitti, and hell, even Danica Patrick entertain the world by driving huge machines at over 200 mph. They don't need the Colin Cowerd's of the world sniveling on their radio shows about what a joke it is to call them athletes.
You know what though? Maybe these people aren't athletes. They are better. They spend their whole lives working their way through minor racing series in order to make it into one of the elite circuits of the world, and that's enough to put them on a list above any diamond kings or heroes of the gridiron.
Dan Wheldon put his life on the line for the SPORT he loved and for the millions of racing fans around the world. Take a moment to think about that and appreciate what the man did during his life. More so, appreciate that, what these drivers do in one day's practice is more impressive than what Ryan Miller will do in his entire career.
So next time you want to rip on auto racing and it's fans for being boring or unimpressive, think about Dale Earnhardt. Think about Gilles Villeneuve. Think about Adam Petty. Think about Ayrton Senna. And now, think about Dan Wheldon.
Goodbye Dan. You were truly one of the greats. I'll have a big glass of milk tonight in your honor.