A Tragic Race Car Driver Death Left Me Feeling Empty

Sometimes it's hard to be sad when people make dangerous life choices.

Oct 18, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

On Sunday, IndyCar racer and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died in a fiery 15-car wreck. He left behind a wife and two young sons. He was 33.

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I saw this news while I was watching football and high from a huge win by the 49ers. But my Niner high shouldn’t have mattered as news of this kind tends to devastate me. Someone’s life being cut short. Someone dying doing what he loves. Someone leaving two young boys fatherless.

And yet, when I heard the news about Dan Wheldon on Sunday, I felt little. “That’s sad,” I thought when I saw it during a game break. “Really sad,” I thought later when I saw the whole story and video on ESPN’s SportsCenter. But when they replayed the same story 10 minutes after that? Instead of being mesmerized, I was frustrated. “I just saw this,” I thought. “Can you play the football highlights, please?”

Before you assume I’m a cold-hearted bitch, the reason I’m sharing this with you is because I was shocked at my reaction. I don’t want to say I love a good tragedy because that sounds awful, but I certainly fuel the voyeurism fire that is so fervently stoked by the media.

From Princess Diana’s death to September 11th to Hurricane Katrina, if there’s horrific news, I will sit in front of the television watching the same awful scenes over and over and over again. It’s a combination of wanting more information (even when it is clear there isn’t any) to empathizing with the tragedy, to, and I’m scared to admit this, but I will anyway, enjoying that feeling of total devastation.

I sound sick saying that, but I believe that there’s a part of many of us that experiences a surge of adrenaline-fueled -- what’s the word?— -- excitement? Anyway, whatever it’s called (thrill also works), there’s a feeling we get when horrible things happen. And that feeling is not just “bad.“

Which is what made it even stranger to me that I didn’t have an emotional response to Dan Wheldon’s death. And because I can’t just let things go, I had to examine my emotions (or lack thereof), which I did. During yet another sleepless night. Yay!

Here’s what I came up with:

Dan Wheldon’s death is awful. I am so incredibly sorry for his family, his friends, and his children. But his death is not shocking. Dan Wheldon chose a sport that required him to drive a fuel-filled car around a track at 225 mph. And sorry, but that sounds an awful lot like bowling with a bomb to me.

As I’ve researched his death and the sport a bit more, I’ve seen quotes like, Every race car driver starts every event knowing that the worst moment is possible. And every driver hopes never to see it.” I’ve seen post after post questioning the safety of IndyCar vehichles “pack racing” at incredibly high speeds on “a circuit as small and banked as the Las Vegas track.”

In short: This sport is incredibly dangerous. And these drivers know it. They know they could easily die every time they race. And they know that their life is not in their hands, as they’re racing in very close proximity to each other. In my opinion, Wheldon didn’t even “crash” his car on Sunday; rather, he was put in a situation that was beyond his control. Unfortunately, once a car is airborne, there’s nothing even the best driver can do; at that point, fate and physics have the wheel.

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But that’s not the point, is it? The point is: Dan Wheldon knew the risks when he got into that car. He knew the risks when he chose racing driver as his profession. He knew the risks and yet he did it anyway. And I commend him for that, but I guess I also blame him a little bit. I know, I know. That’s harsh. It’s awful. Too soon, Daisy! But I promised to always be honest with you guys, even if it means you yell at me, and so there it is. 

Before I turned 21, two close friends (and one more who was not as close) died drug-related deaths. As I’m sure most of you know, there is almost nothing harder than losing someone you love, especially when you’re that age.

Their untimely deaths devastated me. I stopped eating. My hair fell out. I drank too much and cried alone in my dorm room. And what made it most unbearable for me was that they didn’t have to die. They weren’t hit by cars. They didn’t have leukemia. The only reason they died was because of the life choices they made.

Is it totally messed up to compare race car driving with drugs? Maybe. But in this moment, it’s the thing that comes to mind. My friends chose a lifestyle over life. In many ways, Dan Wheldon did the same.

Dan Wheldon did not deserve to die young. But more than that, his young wife didn’t deserve to be a widow and his children didn’t deserve to lose their dad.

I know that Dan Wheldon’s family, friends, and children will mourn his death the way I mourned the death of my friends. It will never EVER stop hurting. There will be times when they’re convinced that there’s an afterlife because they can feel Dan next to them. And there will be times they’re like, wait … can he see EVERYTHING from up there? Decades from now, they’ll wonder what it would be like if Dan were still alive, if he could meet them for a drink, or be there to watch his sons wait for their brides at the end of the aisle. They’ll imagine they see him in the shadows. Pretend like he’s going to show up at a party. Hope, pray, dream, that’s him on the other side of the crowd. 

And that breaks my heart.

But not enough to make me cry. Because I just can’t cry anymore for people who make dangerous choices. Have tons of  unprotected sex. Do crazy drugs. Drive 225 mph on a race track. Live your life however you want. I’ll worry. Always. But I won’t be shocked when things don’t go your way.

From what I've read, Dan Wheldon was a good, kind, amazing man, husband, father, and friend. He was taken from those who love him too soon. No matter how he died, that is the tragedy.

I think it’s sad I’m not crying, but I also think it’s healthy that I know when to cut my losses and accept that people make their own choices -- for better or for worse.

Follow Daisy Barringer on Twitter. She's not always this depressing.