Las Vegas Motor Speedway has a beautiful facility, tons of seating that allows you to see the entire oval and interior road course. Plenty of places to escape the sun and grab some concessions, and a great sound system to never miss any of the action. Those who opt to buy the Neon Garage passes are treated with some great views into the teams garages. There is an elevated area with windows that allows you to see what all is going on before the race begins, watching the teams set up the cars, fix anything that’s broken, and work a set-up for the next race or practice. All of the garages were labeled so any of the fans could find their favorite teams and drivers, they even went as far as to label them on the directory for the track. In the center of the garages, a stage was set-up for a pre-race concert. Los Lonely Boys entertained the attendees with a concert set filling the pits with music.
Credentialed media are also welcomed into the teams garages and pits, I had the privilege of being able to walk around in the pits and snap some photos. The garages were full of busy people, prepping the cars, fueling them up and finishing any last minute details before the cars were rolled out into pit row. Being my first time at an IndyCar race, it was awesome to see the cars this close and personal, the detail and level of craftsmanship that goes into these cars in amazing. There are copious amounts of carbon fiber and other lightweight composites and metals constructing these cars, all to ensure they maintain a light weight yet strong car to withstand the 220mph speeds these cars reach.
One of the amazing parts of these cars is the steering wheel, it is a one stop shop of information, functionality and controls. Everything a driver needs to know or to use is placed on that wheel, a driver should never have to take his or her hands off the wheel for any reason. The drivers are encompassed in a cockpit made of high strength carbon fiber. All you can see once the driver is in the cockpit is their helmets, must be something to get used to being sucked down so low in the car.
It was an awe inspiring experience to be out on the hot pit lanes, seeing the teams switching tires and testing all the pit systems in preparation for the race to begin. The pit crews were testing the air jack system, refueling systems, radios and air guns for changing tires. There were many people out there, from drivers to teams owners, and even a large group of VIP’s, not to mention the media. There was so much to see and photograph out there, was kind of overwhelming to be honest, every time I turned around, there was something new to see and experience.
While the teams were getting the cars ready, all the drivers were brought out center stage in front of the grandstands for their formal introduction. When I had driven into the infield parking area earlier that morning, we had noticed a large number of Honda S2000’s rolling in and being ushered to a special parking area. Not knowing what for we just figured it was some sort of S2000 club. As they were setting up the introduction stage I noticed the group of S2k’s were lining up on the oval, after the first driver was introduced, I noticed they got into the car and were sitting on the back lid of the car waving to the crowd. Pretty cool way to have the final intros of the season, with Hondas, since all the cars are powered by Honda.
While cruising around the hot pit lane, I ran across a legend in motorsports, Mario Andretti! Besides his role as a legend, he also drives the two seated Indy Car that takes lucky fans and VIP’s around the track. He’s a very nice man and accommodating to all the requests he gets for photos and signatures, thank you Mario. I am glad that you like My Life at Speed.
As the driver introductions winding down, the teams were doing last minute preparations to the cars. It was then time to push them into the grid, placed by their qualifying order. To sit on pole position can mean everything, starting out front gives you the motivation boost, the position advantage and on a tough track to pass on like LVMS it can be the difference in the win. When I snapped this photo to the right, of Dan Wheldon’s car being worked on by the crew, little did I or anyone know this would be the last time the car would see these pits.
Once all the cars were in position, we were getting close to race time, close to dropping the green flag and turning these cars loose! The teams all gathered by their cars, removed their hats and enjoyed our nation’s National Anthem. Towards the end, our United States Air Force graced us with a 4 plane fly by with some F-16’s. The drivers are now ready to helmet up and get into their incredible race machines, once everyone was in, they were given the all familiar phrase “Drivers, start your engines!” I knew at that point, it was real. I really was here to watch a Indy Car race, a race that will decide the championship, a race that could win a driver and a fan a large sum of money. I was ready.
It was race time, the cars were running, the hot pit lane was cleared of all non-essential people. The field of 34 cars was lead out by a Honda Civic Si pace car for their two lap warm up. I could feel the energy in the air as the cars rounded turn 4 of the track, the pace car dove down pit lane and all the cars roared past us like a bunch of angry bees. As the green flag was waved, it was on, all the drivers were in the zone, all trying for the coveted win, to end the season on a high note. I decided to stay down in the pit area for a few laps to shoot from this angle for a few laps, figuring I had 200 laps of racing to work with. With the cars doing 220mph on average, the laps were flying by, before I knew it they were 10 laps in. I told myself 5 more laps then I was moving to another spot to photograph the race, as the cars came past the start/finish line beginning lap 11, our worlds were turned upside down….
From where I stood, all I could hear was a lot of loud crashes, cars scrapping and I could see huge amounts of flame coming from turn 2 on the track. We all know that crashes are a part of racing, but we did not expect a 15-car pile up with that much carnage, cars were flying through the air, on fire, and running into one another. The race was brought to an abrupt halt, the remaining cars were all brought into the pits under a red flag situation. There was an eerie silence on the track, the crowd was shocked at what they had just seen. My hat goes off to the safety crew, at the first sign of incident, they were on the way before the cars even stopped moving, putting fires out and getting drivers out of their cars and out of harm’s way.
At this point, all the crews, media and fans could do is stand by and wait to hear the news of what happened and to hear that all the drivers were OK. The crowd looked on in disbelief at the carnage in turn 2, this was the last thing anyone wanted to see, especially being the last race of the season, everyone wanted a good fair fight for the championship. While the cleanup continued, all we could do is wait, there was nothing coming over the speakers, we all sat there watching the chilling replays over and over again, over, and over again. It still gives me chills thinking about it.
After a while of standing around waiting to hear something, cars finally started to come off the track via tow trucks. Seen here is one of the least damaged cars, #57 Angie’s List car piloted by Tomas Scheckter. Some of the drivers were transferred into the onsite medical center to be looked over by the Indy Car medical staff, slowly some of the drivers emerged from there unscathed, just a little shaken up. There was however, no word on Dan Wheldon, his car was badly mangled during the wreck and he impacted the fence.
It was a strange feeling being at the track, no racing going on, no announcing, crowds not cheering and everyone just seemed to shuffle around, not knowing what the news was on Dan. A little while after he was brought into the medical center, he was air lifted to the UNLV medical center in Las Vegas, to receive more medical care. I knew it was serious, why else would they not be saying anything, some people decided to leave the track, with no racing going on and the sun beating down on everyone, I guess they had enough. The diehard fans however stayed there, some even in their seats, fighting exhaustion and heat stroke, the paramedics were called a few times to the stands to help people who had fainted.
Just after 3pm, we were told there would be a press conference to discuss what has happend. “IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. Instantly it was real, IndyCar lost a great driver and champion, a great friend to many, a brilliant competitor and an admired father and husband. Dan Wheldon leaves behind his wife Susan, and two sons, Oliver and Sebastian, who will never get to grow up watching his dad race, doing what he loved to do.
The stands, pit areas, and garages were filled with friends and fans of Dan Wheldon, all of which were mourning the loss of a great man. A meeting was called for all team drivers and owners to discuss the remainder of the race. There was a general agreement that the race would be canceled, and there would be a 5 lap tribute run to be done by the 19 remaining teams.
The teams all assembled on the hot pit lane, checking the cars and changing the tires to ensure there was no damage from the debris field they drove through during the wreck. While the drivers helmeted up and rejoined their cars, the pace car joined them at the front of the field, where it would remain for the entire 5 lap memorial. The crowd returned to their feet, clapping and cheering on the drivers who were doing this great thing to remember a fallen driver. I looked down onto pit row and noticed a large number of people who were not there earlier. Once the cars filed out of pit lane, all of the remaining people in the pits, from pit crews, owners, track staff, safety crews and VIP’s, all walked out to the outer side of the pit lane. This was their way to remember Dan Wheldon.
There was not a person sitting in the stands, not one person looking at their cellphones, texting or checking Facebook, all eyes were on the track, all ears listening to the announcer talk about how loved Dan Wheldon is. When the 19 cars rounded turn 4 following the pace car, the crowd erupted into cheers and clapping, letting the drivers know they appreciated what they were doing to pay tribue to a great person. The safety crews were out at each end of the pit lane, and around the facility, standing on the edge of the track, giving the drivers thumbs ups and applause, as they know all to well the danger these drivers put themselves in every time they step into those cars.
As I looked around, in the stands myself, all I could see is care and compassion for fallen competitor, nobody took a seat during the 5 lap memorial, and each time the cars passed, greeted them with the same applause and cheer as they did the lap before. In the background, the sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” brought tears to the eyes of many, mine included as the cars continued around the track. I was simply amazed to hear all of the great and loving things that others had to say about Dan. He was more then a two time Indy 500 winner, and IndyCar champion. He was a friend to so many.
While I thought everyone had made it out onto the pit lane, I looked down again and the numbers had doubled, it’s as if people came from nowhere, but all were there with the same purpose and the same connection. Every person involved with IndyCar has been touched by Dan’s infections smile, bubbly attitude and overall amazing personality. It was the stories from the countless people, reporters, other drivers, team owners, IndyCar staff, and many more that made it so hard to continue taking pictures, and to sit here now writing this story.
The cars rounded through the start/finish for the last time, checkered flags waving, and the cars rounded turn two, the group of people on pit lane made their way back across into the safety behind the wall. While they followed the pace car back into pit lane, they were welcomed in by the safety crew and the pit crews of all the teams. Dario Franchitti jumped out of his car the second it was stopped, and ran over to give his wife a long much needed hug. This was not the way he wanted to win the championship.
I have been torn since I left Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, on how or what to write, this being my first ever IndyCar event, and not ending the way I or anyone would want. I wanted to be able to talk about a great experience and race, but that was dashed in an instance. But when I look back on it, it was still an amazing experience, I got to see first hand the love for Dan Wheldon, from everyone there. Dan competed in some 130 races before that day, each time going after the win, the money and the pride of being the best. Every driver that day who stepped into their cars knew what is possible and what can lie just beyond the next turn. Death awaits us all, sometimes prematurely like Dan Wheldon, but it’s a risk we all take doing what we love to do.
I hope I have brought some first person perspective to what I saw at this event, and that people continue to honor Dan Wheldon and all he has done. It has been an overall amazing experience for me, albeit a saddened one attending this event. Now we all must carry on doing what we do, be it driving, writing, photographing or just spectating, because that is what Dan Wheldon would want each and every one of us to do. And we shall!
Race In Peace Dan Wheldon
June 22nd, 1978 – October 16th 2011
Please check out a few of these links, to great stories and info on Dan Wheldon:
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