By now anyone who follows motor sports knows that IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed yesterday (October 16) in the 12th lap of the Izod IndyCar season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The two-time Indy 500 winner (and reigning Indy 500 champ) started at the back of the pack, and was racing toward a $5 million bonus if he could make it to the front, with another $1.5 million promised to some lucky fan.
Well, it wasn’t luck that propelled Dan from the final spot on the track to number 24 out of 34 cars at the time of the accident━it was skill. But it had to be the worst luck in the world that had Dan positioned just behind two cars involved in a collision that quickly sucked 13 of the others into its maelstrom, sending several cartwheeling over each other and bursting into flames. One of those was Dan’s, and he was the only driver who didn’t make it out alive.
Dan Wheldon was 33 years old, and among the loved ones he left behind are a wife and two children. My heart aches for his family. My prayers go out to them that, over time, only the good times, the big wins and successes, will come to mind when they think of Dan, but more importantly, that they will hold close the memories of the private Dan whom they loved and supported.
I don’t know what it takes to love someone who’s involved in a dangerous sport like auto racing. I don’t know that I’d have the grace to face each race day knowing it could be my loved one’s last, knowing that it could take no more than a brief touching of two competitors’ wheels at speeds exceeding 200 MPH to change my family’s life forever. I don’t have that competitive streak in me that some, like Dan Wheldon, do. I do understand the drive, the need to be the best that I can, but I don’t understand the need to get to the number one position.
I’m not sure if that difference translates to a lack of confidence, or just a missing gene in my psyche’s make-up. But put me in a competition, any sort of competition, and you’ll find me either heading for the exit, or fretting my way through the event. Team sports are the worst. It’s bad enough if I let myself down, but letting my team down is my greatest fear, competition-wise. In case you were wondering, I speak from experience.
Some of my earliest competitive memories are of scooter relay races in gym class. You remember scooters, don’t you? Those foot-square boards on wheels that double as instruments of torture in phys ed classes all over the US? (Or at least they did when I went to school.) As a chubby child, I barely fit on the stupid little squares, so propelling myself across the high-veneer surface of the school gym always took time, and a huge amount of effort. By the time I’d gather any speed, the kids from the other teams had usually already lapped me, and my teammates (already consigned to last place by the sheer fact that I was on their team) would have to push like crazy to make up the time and distance. The day I left phys ed class and scooters behind me was one of my happiest.
So imagine my horror when I found myself sucked into a relay race during a sort of “field day” that was held by a former employer. All sorts of games had been planned, and I was happy to participate in anything that that pitted me against “the machine,” whatever it was. I’ll toss a football through a hula hoop, or add my weight to a tug-of war team. But ask me to participate in a relay race? No thank you. Unfortunately, someone from my work group spotted me when they were putting together a team for the balloon race. They were desperate for a fourth in the game that required contestants to race from Point A to Point B with a balloon pressed between their legs. If the balloon fell or popped, you (and your team) were disqualified. Somehow I allowed myself to be dragged onto the team.
Now, if you were to think about the worst position to be in during a relay race, you might think it would be with your team trailing, and you, the anchor, having to work like crazy to make up the difference. Well, I had the opposite. I was the anchor position on my team, but thanks to the nimble feet, speed and grace of my three teammates, we were leagues ahead of the others, probably a full lap. I was in a position where I couldn’t lose…unless I dropped or popped that blasted balloon, or just stopped and walked away. As the number three person on our team passed me the balloon, and I captured it between my legs, trying to apply enough pressure to keep it there but not break it, all I could think was, Don’t let it fall…don’t pop it…don’t let it fall…don’t pop it. I was so focused on not blowing the team’s lead that I tuned out everything around me━things like the bystanders laughing and urging me forward, screaming at me to Hurry up!!! I saw and heard them in some other part of my brain as I lumbered by but never realized that’s what they were saying, until something crashed into me from behind, and I saw a blur of something dark whiz by and cross the finish line about a step ahead of me. It was one of the young kids from the company, and he’d raced like crazy to beat me, and my team.
Talk about the agony of defeat.
It was gym class all over again, and the only thing I could think was that the kid was a jerk, that his need to win was so great that he had to go crashing into me and literally push me out of the way to win. I think I even voiced a couple bad words to several people who were standing there, a very uncharacteristic thing for me to do. (Usually the heavy cursing is a habit my characters might indulge in, but not me, especially at work.) I don’t think I even realized what I said until I saw the shock on their faces. My teammates weren’t angry with me for losing, but I hadn’t impressed anyone with my lack of grace in my moment of humiliation.
So no, I don’t have, nor do I understand, the competitive spirit, that need to be number one. But I do understand the need to be the best I can be, and I was far from my best that day. Somehow competition brought out the worst in me, and I decided then and there to not let myself get sucked in ever again.
I don’t know if I’m in the minority on the whole competition thing, but I do praise those who enjoy pitting themselves against each other for our entertainment, who have that drive to be number one. And I pray that they will find those to love who can support them and be by their sides, no matter what.
Rest in peace, Dan Wheldon. If heaven is anything like I imagine, there won’t be any fiery crashes ahead of you to keep you from your number one spot.