Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon was tragically killed in yesterday’s season ending IndyCar race in Las Vegas. Ben praised SportsCenter’s handling of the story this morning, but ABC’s live coverage is also worth lifting up. The 15 car accident that involved Wheldon caused a red flag that stopped the race for over an hour. With no updates on Wheldon’s condition, the somber mood of the commentators and the interviews for such a lengthy race delay told the viewer something was seriously wrong without saying the words.
As I was watching the NFL like every other Sunday in the Fall, I kept turning back to ABC to see what was happening and if there was an update on Wheldon’s condition after I found out about the crash on Twitter. I’m more of a race fan than the average sports fan, but admittedly haven’t watched a lot of racing in the last five years. IndyCar racing is nowhere near as popular as it was in its heyday in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. There are a number of factors involved including the rise in NASCAR, the CART/IndyCar split, and the current sports landscape. I can tell you though that the Indy 500 is by far my favorite event to attend as a sports fan. In fact, one of the races I attended was Dan Wheldon’s rookie year in 2003 when he flipped upside down coming out of Turn 3 late in the race.
The thrill and speed of auto racing is unmatched in sports, but so is the danger, as it always has been. My dad attended the Indy 500 for many years and was there in 1964 for the firery crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. That horrifying crash introduced safer fuels, and the advancements in safety have greatly improved thoughout the decades. Sometimes, that only happens after the worst on-track events sadly. However, any advance in safety can never fully remove the chance the worst tragedy can strike. It’s unfortunate that only after a great racer’s death do we actually think about the extreme danger in auto racing and pay tribute to what these drivers are willing to risk for a great sport they love, like Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon was a brilliant driver and a captivating personality. An IndyCar series champion, two-time Indy 500 champion, and someone who drove and lived with charisma and flair often lacking in a sport defined by robotic drivers whose public relations consist of little more than thanking sponsors. The cruel irony of the day was that Wheldon had regained a full-time ride in the morning with Michael Andretti, replacing Danica Patrick (moving to NASCAR) in the GoDaddy car. Wheldon had won Indy as a parttime driver and spent the year testing the new 2012 car for the series. He was racing in Vegas as part of a gimmicky $5 million sponsorship deal that offered a huge cash bonus to any non-regular driver that could win from the back of the field. Yahoo Sports has a great reflection on Wheldon’s last year and his life that is worth the read.
It’s an impossible situation for a broadcast, but the ABC booth of Marty Reid, former Indy 500 champ Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear and the pit reporters were appropriately somber and hopeful that good news would emerge regarding Wheldon. I’ve always loved Cheever on broadcasts because of his thoughtfulness and outspokenness. The inner conflict within him and Goodyear as broadcasters and racers was laid out for viewers as they discussed the danger of the race at Vegas, the safety of the cars, and their inner drive to push the ultimate limit.
As soon as a drivers meeting was called, I expected the worst. When the drivers emerged not doing interviews and teams were seen hugging and praying, the worst was coming.
The network missed the official announcement of Wheldon’s death and only caught the tail end of the announcement made by CEO Randy Bernard. It’s tough to criticize ABC though imagining the chaos behind the scenes. But, Marty Reid made the announcement and ABC went forward with poignant coverage of the five lap tribute to Dan Wheldon. Dario Franchitti was shown in his cockpit crying, team members and drivers were shown consoling each other on pit lane and the broadcast crew didn’t need to add many words to capture the moment. Covering this event is nothing a broadcast can prepare for, but ABC did as good as could be expected paying tribute to Wheldon and covering the tragedy appropriately. ABC then went silent for the five lap tribute in what was perhaps the most graceful, heartwrenching sports television I’ve ever seen. The video of the tribute is below, including Marty Reid’s heartfelt sendoff at around the 10:50 mark in the video…
“Many people ask me why I always sign off ‘Till we meet again.’ Because goodbye is always so final. Goodbye, Dan Wheldon.” – Marty Reid