(This was originally printed on October 17, 2011)
After I was hired by IndyCar, knowing absolutely nothing of auto racing, I found myself writing repeatedly about the closeness of the community. It was a topic that baffled me to no end, frankly — more so than every other aspect of a sport that baffled me to no end.
There was a sense of connectedness that permeated through all levels of the Series, from the owners & drivers to the clerical staff & Twitter followers and everyone in between. The factions and battle lines of other team sports were replaced with kindness and inclusion and some kind of bizarre investment in each other’s lives. But its charm was also its curse, I thought. Because there is no intrigue without drama, no drama without antagonists and confrontations and people punching other people in the throat. IndyCar’s Pleasantville-like realm of old-timey niceness was good for many things, I argued — but not television ratings. It never made no sense to me.
Because yesterdays are waiting around every high-banked corner in IndyCar, apparently, just as I had never dreamed possible — because I was naïve. And the nice people of that sport were not. They all knew the risks. And they still do. And they always will. It is the unspoken truth of that world, I guess, too ugly to be acknowledged — too inevitable to be prevented. So it is buried & forgotten along with other such grim certainties, either out of superstition or sanity, or probably both. And in its place emerges a shared sense of appreciation of one another, which manifests itself as niceness & decency, all stemming from the terrible dread of the yesterdays to come.
Whether that is understandable or not, I don’t know. Nor do I care. I am unimaginably sad today for reasons I can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s because I am Dan Wheldon’s age and his kids remind me of my kids, and that is just too much to bear. Maybe it was the wretched awfulness of watching it live, of seeing a man die in a ball of fire & fencing, too surreal to process. Or maybe it’s because all of the friends I made in IndyCar are unimaginably sad today too, and that sense of connectedness cuts both ways, for good or ill, and I am not baffled by the closeness of the sport anymore.
(Godspeed, Dan Wheldon.)