RIP Dan Wheldon … RIP Dale Earnhardt

When Dan Wheldon was declared dead on Sunday, I looked up from football for a moment. I am not a big racing fan and I can only think of one person I know who is. But, when an athlete – young or old – passes away, I usually stop for a moment and give it a thought.

Dan Wheldon died doing something he loved. He died doing something that many people want to do.

In reality, how many people can say that?

Anytime someone dies on the racetrack, I think everyone’s initial thoughts – race fan or not – involve Dale Earnhardt. I know that Dan Wheldon was not beloved like The Intimidator, but he was still enough of a good racecar driver that I had heard of him. Trust me, that’s saying something.

I have several “Best of American Sports Writing” books as well as a book of Jim Murray’s best columns that I enjoy opening and reading from time to time. The following column, written by Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel at Earnhardt’s funeral, is one of the best columns I have ever read. Ever.

When I heard about Wheldon’s death, I thought of this column. Take a few moments and read it. Whenever a racecar driver passes, I feel the following should be required reading material for any person.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What must they have been thinking as they filed into the memorial service Thursday and saw the sad faces with faraway eyes and heard the wistful music and smelled the fatal fragrance of funeral flowers?

Would this all be for them someday too soon?

Dale Earnhardt died in a race car a couple of months before his 50th birthday. And there sat Jeff Gordon, 29, somber-faced in a church pew. Was he contemplating his own mortality? Would he make it to 30? Adam Petty died last year in a race car. He never made it to 20.

And what was Dale Jarrett thinking as Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, made her way to the front of the church? She turned toward where the other drivers sat, blew a kiss and tearfully whispered the words, “Thank you.” One wrong swerve, one twitched nerve, one treacherous curve and couldn’t that just as easily be Jarrett’s wife, Kelley, standing on trembling legs in front of a roomful of forlorn friends?

And what was Michael Waltrip thinking as he watched 12-year-old Taylor Earnhardt trying to hold back tears, trying to be brave, trying to figure out why God took her daddy away? Was Waltrip wondering if he would be there to give away his own little girls — Caitlin Marie and Margaret Carol — at their weddings?

These are the morose reflections racers contemplate when they attend the funeral of a friend. Which is why they rarely do. There were a handful of Winston Cup drivers at Earnhardt’s memorial ceremony Thursday, but there were many more who weren’t there.

Earnhardt would have understood the mass truancy. He, too, refused to go to funerals. You have to understand racers. They are trained not to think about dying. That’s why they avoid funerals as if they were clogged carburetors. It hurts them to see the survivors suffer; reminds them too much of their own families.

Why do you think it is drivers always carry their young kids to the car with them just before the beginning of every race? Why do you think the last thing they do before they hit the ignition switch is hug their children and kiss their wives? Because, deep down, they know. They know every time they get into a race car that they might have to be cut out of it.

And now, they really know. Because if the indestructible Earnhardt can be put into an early grave, they all can. If Earnhardt must walk through the valley of the shadow of death, nobody is immune. To achieve anything in racing, you must navigate that nebulous line between danger and disaster. It’s like English racer Jackie Stewart once said, “In my line of work, the fastest are too often listed among the deadest.”

Earnhardt’s death finally began to set in Thursday for many fans who have been holding impromptu vigils since the fatal crash of their hero Sunday in the Daytona 500. In the aftermath of a tragedy, the optimists always say, “At least the sun’s going to come up in the morning.” Appropriately, it didn’t Thursday in North Carolina.

The dank, dreary day seemed an appropriate climax to a sunless, joyless week. Raindrops mixed with teardrops. Shivering fans stood outside the invitation-only ceremony and cried out whatever tears they had left.

“I think this weather is God’s way of saying the world is a cold and lonely place without Dale Earnhardt,” says Terry Wright, who made the trek from Trenton, N.J.

Inside the church, the ceremony is ending, and fellow drivers file out one by one by one.

They are ashen-faced, as if they’ve just seen a ghost.

Or worse:

Maybe they’ve just seen themselves.

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