I always smile when I think back to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but this morning’s commute brought that old memory right back.
When I was in 4th grade, each student had to write a 4-5 page report of the career path we hoped to take. As I recall it was towards the end of the year and the report was to account for a large part of our grade. My classmates chose doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers – the majority of them being the more ‘normal’ career choices.
When the time came to turn in our reports, I asked my mother to look mine over beforehand. “A race-car driver?” she asked. I answered very seriously, “I know one day there will be women race-car drivers and maybe I’ll be one of them.” I remember detailing Richard Petty and his career, and Cale Yarborough as well.
More than anything, I wish I still had that report. I got an A.
I didn’t grow up to be that race-car driver – at least not professionally. In all seriousness, at the time I yearned to do it and furthermore believed I could do it. It’s good to have those hopes and dreams as a kid, to believe that you can do something and perhaps even be the first of your kind to do it. In this crazy day we’re in, I wonder how many poverty-stricken children have their hopes and dreams crushed by the stress of the rough economic times. Sometimes hopes and dreams are all you have to hang on to, and it could be the one thing that pushes you forward. Life just seems so much harder now than it was back then, in simpler times.
So what spawned the memory of that 4th grade report?
On my two-lane highway this morning. Eyes dart up ahead left, up ahead right. Scrutinize, which lane’s faster. I can judge speed like a human radar. I want up front. Sunday drivers. Feels free up front. Open air. I love my car. My car loves me back. Oh yeah. Picked the right lane.
It was the finale of the year, the Indy race at Vegas Motor Speedway. Little did anyone know how it would end. It was to be a day in which Indy racing would lose one of their very own… english driver Dan Wheldon.
Anyone who follows any type of racing knows what ‘the big one’ means. It translates to worse-case scenario, a bunch of cars getting together – usually with injuries, sometimes even a fatality. Early on in lap 13, the big one happened. There were fifteen cars total, and it was one of the worst wrecks I’ve ever seen. It immediately took me back to 2001 when Dale Earnhardt died in NASCAR’s Daytona 500.
As many others did, Keith and I spent the rest of the afternoon awaiting word on the condition of the most seriously injured driver, Dan Wheldon. Already considered a veteran in the sport at a young 33 years old, he was respected and admired by the young guns. He was a two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500, this year as well as 2005.
When a car gets covered up with tarps after a wreck, you just know it’s not good. The commentators tried to tell the viewing audience at home it was covered ‘to keep all the parts intact’ – their attempt at a diversion. After about an hour we sensed the outcome, from the heavy feeling in our stomachs to the drivers’ faces when they came out of their drivers meeting. They tried hard not to show their emotion, while the media continued their job of shoving cameras in their faces. About two hours after the initial crash, the word finally came that everyone dreaded. Dan Wheldon had passed away from unsurvivable injuries in the wreck.
It was respectfully decided the race would not continue. The emotional drivers requested a five-lap tribute to Dan, which the officials quickly granted. They lined up in perfect formation and drove three-wide for their tribute, while bagpipes played in the background. It was very emotional to any and all who were watching – but I can only imagine how it was for those who knew him.
The speeds these cars reach is nothing short of amazing. I know it can happen… and these men and women know exactly what it is they’re signing up for. Even if you don’t follow racing, a tragedy like this sends a stark reminder that we never know when our day will come. On any given day, any one of us may be the one to get in the car, buckle up, and simply not come back home. We are never promised another day.
May you rest in peace, Dan. You sure had a lot of people who looked up to you.