Monday, October 17, 2011

Tragedy in Vegas

I'm in a haze, a fog, hoping to wake up and find out yesterday was simply a dream. I've tried to find the words to describe what I saw, but no words fit.

Yesterday I was at the Indycar race in Las Vegas, and if you've seen any news or sports, you would know there was a crash. It was unlike anything I have ever seen and as a result this year's Indianapolis 500 champion, Dan Wheldon, was killed.

In the midst of this haze I was in yesterday I wondered if it would be appropriate for me to write on such a topic. As numb as I felt I'm sure this is nothing for those closer to the sport, and to Dan, but still I had this horrible feeling of pure numbness.

As the race started I had a feeling something was going to happen, but when it did it was the longest few seconds I can recall. It didn't look real from the stands. Car after car shot into the sky, a few caught fire, and then eeriest thing happened. Silence. The cars left in the race came by slowly as the red flag was displayed, but from the grandstands there was nothing. No ooing, no cheering, no crying, nothing. No noise. As the cars came down pit road and the motors were shut off it was like being 10 miles north in the middle of the desert as the noise was of pure isolation.

Slowly, people started to talk, but I didn't feel like moving. For the next two or so hours I stayed in my seat, roasting in the sun, but not feeling anything. "What happened?" I kept asking myself. Over and over I replayed what I saw in my mind. Every time this happened I still thought that something like this only happens in movies, or nightmares.

As the time progressed every time the IMS radio network came back from break there was a deep hush as all in attendance waited, hoping, praying that there would be good news. As the time progressed, however, the hope was fading and the others around me were expecting the worse.

Rumors swirled around, and as I figured the worst was going to come true, Rob said the heat was getting to him. I heard those words, but it took a while to process. Eventually I came too and I too was starting to feel ill, not due to heat, but just from remembering the crash in my mind and seeing the scene of the crash. And with that we left.

As we got to my car Rob got a text, as I'm sure I would have too but my phone was out of battery, and the worst had come to light. The text also said the race was going to be abandoned, but the drivers who were still in the race would do a five lap salute to salute Dan Wheldon.

The rest of the day I was empty, numb, and tired. Again, I'm not trying to put the spotlight on how awful I felt because, as I said, I'm sure what I was and am feeling is minuscule compared to others. I tried to concentrate, but it wasn't happening. I tried to think of other things, but the crash kept replaying through my mind.

I did say I wasn't close to Dan, and this is true, however I have flagged three races he was in as he competed in all the SKUSA SuperNats I have flagged. I shook his hand one year, and helped him lift his kart over the wall another. Last year he began to give me a slight wave of his hand as he crossed the line to take the checkered flag. In my first year at Supernats, Dan was getting pushed around and he had had enough so he started to show the others drivers his displeasure with his hands so I was told to give him a rolled black flag, that is our way to warn a driver, and he gave me a hand motion as he drove by that was of one of, "oops, sorry." Watching Dan at the SKUSA Supernats was always a treat.

As night came last night I wondered why I love this sport of racing. I questioned my love and thought that I should just turn away from it. Each time I came to the conclusion that I could live without it I felt emptier. My thoughts then went as far as thinking that doing anything out of the home would be too dangerous. I mean, what's the point of stepping into a car of any sort, or a plane, or even crossing the street? Then I thought that everyone on that track did so because they love what they do. No one forced those drivers to strap into the race car and vie for the race win.

There's danger in everything. Some people do things a bit more dangerous than others, but I eventually came to respect the sport of racing even more. I raced for many years, and now have flagged for over 15 years, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. As I laid down for bed I thought back to my first race; I was so nervous that I was sure I was going to throw up. I thought of all the bad things that could happen to me, but as soon as the signal was given to enter the track all was right with the world. Nerves didn't exist and life was being experienced to its finest degree. With that thought I thought back to the day's race, and the tragedy that took place. When racing, all that matters is that race. It's a unique feeling that unless you've been behind the wheel I don't know if you can understand this, but it is the most wonderful feeling in the world.

My love of the sport is not going to fade; I simply love it too much. Racing is dangerous, there is no denying that. As I have said, I did not know Dan Wheldon except looking at him as he passed me at speed in a go kart and it will feel a bit empty next month at the Supernats, but having the memory of having him wave to me in respect is something special. Thanks Dan for that, you were an awesome champion of the sport and I'm not the first, or last to say this, but you will be missed greatly.


  1. Well said, Aaron. We all take risks and put ourselves "out there" to do what we love. That is, if we are lucky enough to do what we love as our careers. Imagine putting oneself at risk for something you hate or just feel you "have to" do to survive.

  2. Just wanted to say that I've been thinking of you since I heard the news of the tragedy yesterday. I wondered if you were flagging that race. I'm sorry for your loss and for his family's and to the racing world. He sounded like a dynamic guy. Take care.

  3. Ditto what Patti just said. You were my first thought when I heard the news, Aaron.