Dan Wheldon & The Mourning Show
Musings on Death Via Racing Carnage
This is a delicate subject to broach so bear with me and reserve judgment to the end if possible. Then, if you feel like I’m out of line, irreverent, insensitive, or just plain wrong, let me have it.
Five months ago, Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in front 300,000 fans in exceedingly dramatic fashion. Rookie A.J. Hildebrand had the race sewn up, needing only to steer his car through the fourth and final turn, through a checkered flag. But Hildebrand crashed into the wall and Wheldon gained a stunning victory. It was his second Indy 500 win in a six-year span and professionally (and perhaps even personally), Dan Wheldon was on top of the world.
Fast forward four months and three weeks: Wheldon is flying among the traffic in the final Indy car series race of 2011 in Las Vegas. Wheels touch, cars carom off one another, and Wheldon goes airborne and upside down. He’s pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
[Related story/ video of crash here: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/dan-wheldons-death-showcases-dangers-racing-14750835
Obviously, the death of any 33-year-old father of two is extremely unfortunate and Wheldon has been deservedly eulogized by fans, competitors, and the media the past few days. By all accounts, he seemed a personable sort who loved to compete and wielded a quick wit. Although he was British, Wheldon had basically adopted Indianapolis as his hometown, living here for much of the year, and donating healthy sums to the local Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, for instance.
The Indianapolis Star ran a story today heralding the establishment of a Wheldon trust fund along with an announced memorial service slated for this Sunday at the 18,000-seat Conseco Fieldhouse to honor the fallen driver.
The story prompted a spate of comments, many of which I initially found very surprising, that ran along the following lines: “It’s a shame Wheldon died but there are far greater injustices that receive no media attention. Regular, noble, hard-working people die in anonymity all the time. This guy had a job he loved, a certain amount of celebrity, and had made multi-millions by age 33. Now money is being raised for a trust fund and he’s getting a nationally televised funeral (on the Versus channel) in a basketball arena. It all seems a bit much.”
Upon further review, I have to agree. As sad as Wheldon’s death is, the reaction appears rather unbalanced. A local media outlet referred to him as “heroic.” He chose an extremely dangerous occupation, which indeed requires a certain amount of bravery, but dying in a high-risk venture of one’s own choosing doesn’t seem necessarily heroic. (If I die bungee jumping, is it heroic?) Dan Wheldon was added to the Vegas race as a “wildcard entrant” due to his Indy 500 victory and was promised a $2.5 million purse if he won. He had a financial incentive and he pursued it within his chosen profession. To me, the most noble aspects Wheldon offered humanity include a positive mental attitude, a sense of humor, and largesse toward selected charities. However, given his massive income – Wheldon earned $2.6 million from this year’s Indy 500 victory alone – donating large sums to worthy causes seems more humane than heroic. Many people I know are charitable toward worthy institutions and for all I know, their donations are proportional to Wheldon’s given comparative income disparity. The trust fund now being set up for Wheldon’s two sons seems questionable at best. Dan Wheldon made millions but his kids need financial help? This isn’t like the death of a police officer or a soldier in Afghanistan. I can logically support civic trust fund drives in those cases because a relatively underpaid person died in the service of others in each case. Neither condition applies to Mr. Wheldon. And needless to say, neither the soldier nor the police officer will receive a televised funeral in an NBA arena.
Lest you think I begrudge Dan Wheldon, I certainly do not. The wreck he endured and his death are both horrific events and I am truly sorry that he died. He’s a person I would have loved to have had a pint and a conversation with. The reaction to Wheldon’s death simply seems unwarranted to me and ideally, I’d hope it would spur others to reflect on the subject. As I heard an eleven-year-old child say after hearing of the death on a news bulletin, “I’ll bet a lot of good people died today and we don’t hear anything about that.” Amen.
RIP Dan Wheldon.