In a moment on Sunday, everything changed.
As 15 cars barrelled into one another, some flying in the air like some grotesque mockery of a wounded bird, as the flames began to blast from the cars, something leapt into our minds, primal, unbidden.
As the moments passed, as more drivers were accounted for as safe in the carnage, our fear for Dan Wheldon continued to grow. Championships, points battles--none of it mattered at all.
All that mattered was the well-being of a hero, a driver, a friend.
Not knowing the welfare of someone you care for is maddening. There's nothing you can do. No gesture or expression seems to be enough. There's nothing but the gnawing, gasping, tearing incrementing of horror.
When Eddie Sachs died at Indy in 1964, Sid Collins gave an impromptu eulogy. There was no script, no rote that would seem fitting. But Collins' words those days would continue to ring through to this age:
You heard the announcement from the public address system. There’s not a sound. Men are taking off their hats. People are weeping. There are over 300,000 fans here not moving. Disbelieving.
Some men try to conquer life in a number of ways. These days of our outer space attempts some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death and they calculate their risks. And with talking with them over the years I think we know their inner thoughts in regards to racing. They take it as part of living.
A race driver who leaves this earth mentally when he straps himself into the cockpit to try what for him is the biggest conquest he can make (are) aware of the odds and Eddie Sachs played the odds. He was serious and frivolous. He was fun. He was a wonderful gentleman. He took much needling and he gave much needling. Just as the astronauts do perhaps.
These boys on the race track ask no quarter and they give none. If they succeed they’re a hero and if they fail, they tried. And it was Eddie’s desire and will to try with everything he had, which he always did. So the only healthy way perhaps we can approach the tragedy of the loss of a friend like Eddie Sachs is to know that he would have wanted us to face it as he did. As as it has happened, not as we wish it would have happened. It is God’s will I’m sure and we must accept that.
We are all speeding toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour, the only difference is we don’t know how to speed faster and Eddie Sachs did. So since death has a thousand or more doors, Eddie Sachs exits this earth in a race car. Knowing Eddie I assume that’s the way he would have wanted it. Byron said “who the God’s love die young.”
Eddie was 37. To his widow Nancy we extend our extreme sympathy and regret. And to his two children. This boy won the pole here in 1961 and 1962. He was a proud race driver. Well, as we do at Indianapolis and in racing, as the World Champion Jimmy Clark I’m sure would agree as he’s raced all over the world, the race continues. Unfortunately today without Eddie Sachs. And we’ll be restarting it in just a few moments.”
We're heartbroken, devastated. Empty. The racing will continue, eventually, but we are minus a great gentleman, a true champion, but most importantly, a man who loved and was loved in return.
I got to interview Dan, then meet him in person at Kentucky. He was gracious, fun, and an incredible ambassador for this sport. He was a champion, an honorific inadequate to his warmth, personality, and love of racing. That is what he will forever be to those of us, part of this INDYCAR family, a legacy immortal against the ravages of time.
We use the term "honored" in a lot of ways, perhaps too much, but it was an honor to know Dan Wheldon. It was a privilege to see him race, and listen to him talk about his love of racing, and what it meant. He personified the idea that if a person wouldn't give up, they could bring themselves back from disappointment and rejection. I'm proud to be a fan of a Series and a track he chosen to make his home.
I wish I had words like Sid Collins for you. I wish I could tell you just how you can hate and irresistibly love something at the same time. I wish I could say something, anything to make it better. But I don't have any answers. Just an abiding love for the sport, and sorrow for a fallen hero.
God bless all of you, and your families, and our INDYCAR family.