ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The death of two-time Indianapolis 500-winner Dan Wheldon on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has, for a multitude of reasons, been especially hard to reconcile for those who knew, worked with or cheered for the popular 33-year-old.
It doesn't figure to get easier, not with five months left until the IZOD IndyCar Series runs its first race of the 2012 season. And with so many questions left to be answered, so many emotions left to sort, there is no telling how different the series will be from the one Wheldon helped build.
Racing accidents are the result of a confluence of circumstances that only together can produce disaster, and those are yet to be officially discerned, or at least revealed. But the timing of the 15-car melee that led to Wheldon's death was particularly cruel. The next-generation race car set to debut in 2012, for which Wheldon had been the test driver throughout the season, is expected to feature bumpers that, in theory, would have prevented his car from riding over Paul Tracy's and into the air. The nine-year-old chassis used on Sunday was in its last scheduled race. Drivers had expressed concerned that the high banks of Las Vegas, enlarged 34-car field and physical ability to run full speed the entire way around the 1.5-mile track created three crucial circumstances that could yield disaster.
The fact the accident occurred on the final event of the season allows his peers time to mentally and emotionally convalesce. A random sampling of industry Twitter feeds this week readily demonstrated that many drivers were still hurting. That Wheldon's death was the first for the series since the rise of social media made for a heart-wrenching study in grief and healing, as his friends and counterparts attempted to clear their minds and reconcile their emotions about an unforgiving sport in scattered corners of the world.
Race car drivers, like first responders and soldiers, are unique in having to face the feasibility of serious harm every time they go to work. A lifetime of preparation can help offset worries. But moments like these create doubts that must be banished from the mind to allow the body to again put itself in such harrowing situations. Those who do it best can become legends.
"I've known people who wanted to drive race cars when I was running that worked 10 times harder than me to do well and couldn't hit their ass," A.J. Foyt told me in 2006. "You get out there and you just know it's going to work out."
After Paul Dana's death during a warm-up practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway before the 2006 season opener, drivers could reconcile their emotions by assuring themselves how much more experienced or accomplished they were than the rookie, who had three previous IndyCar starts. Danica Patrick admitted she barely even knew her then-Rahal Letterman teammate. Drivers cannot whisper the same assurances to themselves after the death of Wheldon, who was gifted on oval tracks, and a ubiquitous figure likely to become one of the series' most relied-upon personalities with Patrick leaving for NASCAR next season.
So much to sort out.
But it will all start anew, eventually, next spring. But it won't start fresh. IndyCar will debut the new Wheldon-vetted chassis next season, which Dallara announced it will rename in his honor, at St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown since 1999, and where his funeral will take place on Saturday. IndyCar will begin anew on a race course 10 minutes from Wheldon's home, where many of the drivers in the race have visited or bunked since the town hosted the series' first non-ovals race in 2005. Wheldon won that first race and declared himself "The King of St. Pete," perhaps a jovial barb at four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, who also lived in the city at the time.
Wheldon became a familiar face around St. Petersburg as he began raising a family here, and even though race promoters leveraged many drivers to help the race grow to a staple of the IndyCar schedule, Wheldon remained its ambassador and its face. Even when he began this season without a ride, he was greeted by handshakes and hugs as he strode the paddock in street clothes. Fans asked about the kids, Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, then a newborn. And during the race weekend this spring he announced he had signed a deal with Bryan Herta Autosport to race in the Indianapolis 500, which he went on to win.
Back in the corner of that same Mahaffey Theater where Wheldon announced his Indianapolis 500 plans, drivers had huddled uncomfortably in the spring of 2006, coming to grips with or blocking out doubts about their own mortality and fallibility, during a memorial service for Dana.
In another oddity, St. Petersburg has become the unfortunate venue for healing and moving on for IndyCar, and the confluence of events and circumstances and coincidences that will surround the March 25 event, currently scheduled as the season-opener, will undoubtedly be haunting, not only in what they see and remember, but who they don't see, and what they want to forget.