On Sunday, October 16, 2011 Dan Wheldon died in Las Vegas while entertaining us. The concepts of death and entertainment appear mutually exclusive, but they seem to intersect in this tragedy.
The grisly scene at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sickened us. We stared. We hoped. And lastly, we cried. But we watched. And that gnaws at me.
I have loved open wheel racing as long as I can remember. Memorial Day meant listening to Sid Collins call the Greatest Spectacle in Racing on the radio. My father, born on Memorial Day in 1913, told stories of the races he attended and the drivers he remembered. My brother, 17 years my senior, regaled me with stories of his races and took me to my first 500 where, at 10 years old, I spent the night before the race on 16th Street and saw Graham Hill win the 500. Nothing has ever compared to it in pageantry, color, and excitement. Tom Carnegie’s voice is part of the sound track of my life. Racing flowed through my veins and made my heart pound. It still does. But I am troubled.
The citizens packed the coliseums in Rome to watch gladiators fight to the death. I can only assume they liked the pageantry, color, and excitement. I am sure their hearts pounded as the gladiators stepped forth to do battle.
I am not going to compare modern race fans to the blood lusted citizens of Rome. None of us want to see the shadow of death drape over a race. I will, however, point to the fact that these drivers, these steely-eyed missile men, risk their lives for our entertainment, risk their lives to make our hearts pound, and sometimes die in the process. But unlike the Roman gladiators, they choose to do it.
Men and women will continue to risk their lives to go the fastest, to compete with others in contests of speed, stamina, and courage. I think some people are programmed that way. We will continue to be thrilled and entertained by their attempts. But are we culpable? Do we not clamor for more speed, more side-by-side racing. Do we not demand excitement? Are we willing to give up the short, high banked ovals? Are we willing to accept less risk? Are we willing to be less entertained?
After surveying the Fredericksburg battlefield in 1862, Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” Are we still learning this lesson?