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The Brewery

A gathering place for sports analysis and opinion with Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer.

October 17, 2011 at 9:30 AM

A fallen star in a fast car: Appreciating Dan Wheldon and his sport

Posted by Jerry Brewer

I was going to ask Mike Gastineau to write an essay about IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon's tragic's death when I woke up this morning. When I awoke and opened my e-mail, I found out he already had written something beautiful for both of our sites. Gas' latest contribution to The Brewery is poetic and heartfelt. You can feel his love for racing and his appreciation of what Wheldon meant to the sport.

DAN WHELDON: 1978-2011
By Mike Gastineau

The Unser Racing Museum, a shrine to arguably the most famous family in American racing history, is located just north of downtown Albuquerque, N.M.

It sits in a pair of somewhat non-descript warehouse style buildings just off Montano Road. From the outside, the Museum isn't particularly inviting or impressing.

Inside is a different story.

Dozens of racecars, a gigantic trophy room, and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia add up to tell an incredibly rich and detailed story of a family's lifetime spent in the pursuit of speed and glory.

There are Indianapolis 500 winning cars from Al, Bobby, and Al Jr. Trophies from races all over North America. There's an entire room dedicated to the family's domination of the Pike's Peak International Hill climb.

There's also an area dedicated to the career of Jerry Unser Jr.

Jerry Unser was the oldest of the Unser brothers and the first of the family to compete in the Indianapolis 500. In 1958, he qualified 24th for the race. On the first lap of that race he was caught up in a 13-car wreck, which resulted in his car being catapulted over the third turn wall.

Back in the days when safety was really nothing more than luck, he incredibly not only survived that crash but walked away from it. Undaunted, he came back to Indianapolis the next year and was severely burned in a crash during the opening day of practice for the 1959 race.

He died 17 days later. In the area dedicated to his all too short 27-year life, his brothers Al and Bobby share a story about what happened after Jerry's death.

They talk about how their Mom and Dad gathered them together and told them that they were still willing to support their desire to drive racecars. They told the boys (Bobby was 25, Al was 20) that the only stipulation to the support was the same one they had with Jerry.

You had to be all in.

This came from parents who had just lost a son. But it also came from parents who understood what racing was all about. You are in an unending battle against the clock and other drivers to be fast. Faster. Fastest.

And while there's an undeniable rush to the very basic goal of racing (which is to be faster than anyone else on the track), it comes with a very obvious caveat: you are risking your life. Everyone in racing understands this fact.

Like anyone in any form of racing who ever strapped him or herself into a cockpit, Dan Wheldon understood and accepted the risks. When he strapped himself into his car Sunday in Las Vegas he didn't think he was going to die. He thought he was going to win.

Dan Wheldon will be remembered as one of the great drivers in racing history.

There are many kinds of racing: Formula One, NHRA, NASCAR, IndyCar, Motocross, Endurance, Touring, Sports Car.

But there's only one Indianapolis 500. Win it and you're a racing legend. Win it twice, and you're in rarified air. Dan Wheldon is one of only 18 guys to have won it twice.

I'm from Indianapolis. People who win this race are my sports heroes. I love the sport. But I hate the price that's sometimes paid. And I hate that some people, people who have never been to a race, will dismiss the sport with a casual, disgusting, and ignorant comment:

"People only go to those things to see crashes."

I know this statement is made by people who've never been to a race because I have been to races. I've stood with thousands of fans after a crash and experienced what it feels like to have the air grow completely still as people stare at the crash and silently beg to please see the driver moving. Please, God, let him be OK.

More often than not (and certainly much more often than in days past) the drivers are OK. But sometimes they are not. Sunday in Las Vegas was one of those days. The sport will survive but the loss of Dan Wheldon will linger as a horrible reminder that this sport is truly an all-in bargain.

On May 27th, 2012, the 33 fastest drivers in the world will accelerate out of the north turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They will see the green flag displayed from the starter's stand and their speed will increase from approximately 55mph to about 220 mph. 350,000 fans will roar as their hearts rise into their throats.

Sadly, for only the fourth time in history, the defending champion won't be there.

God Bless you, Dan Wheldon.

Mike Gastineau is the host of Gas Man In the Afternoon from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on 950 KJR-AM. Click here to check out his radio show's web page, which includes an interview he did with Wheldon last week.

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excellent tribute Mike. as one who appreciates racing (in person, much more than TV) and has been to time trials at the Brickyard, your tribute to...  Posted on October 17, 2011 at 9:57 PM by just passing thru. Jump to comment
Damn, Gasman, you can write. I'll listen to you in a bit. Damn tragic too.  Posted on October 17, 2011 at 2:57 PM by GoRentonGo. Jump to comment
Gas, Very well written. When I saw on the internet that there was a terrible crash in Vegas, I watched the broadcast. After watching races, and...  Posted on October 17, 2011 at 10:56 AM by Gunndawg. Jump to comment

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