No less fitting, it would be the season finale at ‘Sin City’, Las Vegas, which would see the then-three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti up against Australia’s own Will Power in what was shaping up to be another titanic showdown for the championship.
Having explored the paddock and met a host of drivers during the pre-race festivities to line up some interviews during the off-season, Matt took his seat in the grandstands on what promised to be a glorious autumn day of high-speed oval racing. This was truly going to be a great way to end his holiday.
Behind the Franchitti-Power battle for the championship, many eyes would be fixed on Dan Wheldon, who was aiming to win a $5 million purse if could win the race from the back of the grid. But then, as Matt writes so beautifully in this exclusive article for Richard’s F1, disaster happened…
You didn’t need to have met or known Dan Wheldon to feel like you knew him.
He had a natural charisma and charm, whether as the one being interviewed or more recently, as a guest commentator asking the questions, which gave you the same warm and fuzzy feeling you’d have felt if you had invited him to your house for Christmas dinner.
Which makes the events of yesterday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway all the more difficult to understand.
The atmosphere in pit lane yesterday prior to the race was one of excitement and anticipation. Would Dario Franchitti be able to hold his points lead to win his third consecutive IndyCar championship (or fourth cons-ecutive, if you don’t count the 2008 season Dario didn’t contest)? Or would the new threat from "Down Under", Will Power, finally realise his dream and take the top prize?
The drivers took to their cars, and the pace car led the field around and the crowd were ready for 200 furious laps of wheel to wheel action.
For the first 12 laps, it was money well spent for all. Ed Carpenter was challenging Tony Kanaan for the lead. I spoke to Ed just before the race as he sat in the shade under the driver introduction stage and said to him, "Good luck Ed. Fingers crossed you can go two in a row," referring to his recent victory in Kentucky two weeks prior.
As 34 screaming 2-litre V8 Honda engines rocketed past, the race was set to be a nail-biter all the way.
And on Lap 13 – only 18 miles into the race – it ended, although we didn’t know it at the time. Yes, the accident looked awful but all the advancements in driver safety gave us all an initial optimism that all would be well. Next thing we heard was that the ambulance helicopter was being fired up, and it soon took off but still, many thought it was a precaution and that all would be well.
It wasn’t until about 30-45 minutes after the race was stopped and no official word had come through that hopes for the best slowly turned into fears for the worst. There was always still a chance. As fiercely competitive as Dan was on track, we knew Dan was as much of a fighter off it, should his life be on the line as was being speculated by this point.
Almost two hours since the red flag came out and the race had been stopped did news come through. For those at the circuit not watching the telecast, the expressions of the drivers once they emerged from their meeting hinted the grim reality of the situation. A collective gasp and outcry of emotion from the crowd, many who learned of it via social networking and texts from friends confirmed it.
Standing next to me was a man draped in the Union Jack flag of England (pictured, top). His name was Adrian and he was from Plymouth in England and showed me a picture of himself with Wheldon, taken in Texas. He was struggling to fight back tears. Adrian was a long-time fan of CART, which then became IndyCar.
By this point, about 15 minutes since the news broke, all the drivers were back with their teams and word came through that a 5-lap tribute for all drivers able to participate would take place. So as the crews lined up along the pit lane, the drivers once again took to their cars, with competition the furthest thing from their minds, to do what they do best, and to pay a brief but worthy tribute to a fellow competitor and a friend.
RIP Dan Wheldon
1978 – 2011
[Images via article author, Associated Press, Getty Images and LAT]