The Flags at Half Mast in the Fourth Turn

In the process of writing this column about Charlotte and the 5th Chase race the unthinkable happened. The world of motorsports lost a champion and a hero. Somehow, the hush from the TV and the change in tone from Eddie Cheever made the reality of the situation very clear. Marty Reid stumbled over his words. The safety workers on the track had that familiar rush and desperation in their movements. I was taken back to a memory that is still too fresh to revisit. Daytona 2001. But this can’t be happening we have made all these changes. We have stepped up safety and safety management. How can we be looking at the same kind of tragedy?

[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]In the process of following motorsports our lines tend to blur. We forget different series different rules. We forget that as much as we may complain and moan about NASCAR’s rules and rulings, they are at the very top of the game in safety. But NASCAR is not safe either. 200 mph in a 3600 lb car that hits an unmovable concrete wall safer barrier or not, and hits it at the right angle, hans device or not, and tragedy can and will result.

Many NASCAR fans seem to forget this as they cheer loudly when drivers that are not their favorite wreck or are involved in a wreck. Saturday night was a good example. Jimmie Johnson hit the wall at 189 mph dead head on hard enough to lift the car off the ground. Please note the safer barrier didn’t break. It gave as it is suppose to but it didn’t break. What broke was an extremely well built piece of machinery. Although Jimmie climbed out and walked away, the in car camera told the story far better. He continued to slump in the seat and drop his head. He sat slumped forward in the drivers seat for a short time before letting the net down and climbing from the car. He was dazed and seemed turned around as he was lead to the ambulance. Although he was checked and released from the infield care center, Johnson was pale and shook up when he gave his interview.

American Muscle

The cheers from the stands were gross and tactless. They illustrated not passion for the sport or a driver but ignorance on the part of those who were blind enough not to see how close our sport came to losing a young vibrant champion and hero. After having been there at the loss of too many of my heroes I was sickened and disgusted at the display. How could they not remember Daytona in 2001? How could they not remember New Hampshire in 2000? For God’s sake how could they not remember the waiting for days after Michigan in 1994? The waiting and not knowing for word on Ernie Irvan. How could they possibly behave like this? My answer came from a source that often supplies my answers, because they weren’t there. Because they are too ignorant to understand that these guys can be gone in the blink of an eye. Because many though they claim to be life long fans of the sport were not fans in 2001 or were not old enough to grasp what happened. To them the names Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Steve Irwin and Adam Petty are historical. They weren’t there. They don’t understand the loss of a hero and a champion.

IndyCar fans had been spared the loss of a hero since 2006. Sheltered much like NASCAR fans with the reassurances of the sanctioning body that the cars were safe. The tracks were safe. The drivers and fans were safe. A misconception that NASCAR and IndyCar promoted and encouraged. But it’s still a misconception. A dangerous lulling into complacent behavior and lack of concern on the part of fans and drivers a like.

Drivers who allow their tempers to control their behavior and use a 3600 lb car as a weapon have bought into that complacency. Fans who cheer when a driver hits the wall have bought into that complacency. People regardless of who they are or what form of motorsports they follow who believe that the sport is safe are niave and unfortunately stupid.

NASCAR was fortunate, our champion is sore and bruised but he will race again at Talladega. IndyCar was not so fortunate and they mourn the loss of one of their champions in Dan Wheldon. It is time for those of us who buy tickets and t-shirts to say to our sanctioning bodies lets look at it again. Are we truly doing everything we can do to keep our heroes safe? In NASCAR is a car with no down force and too high of a center of gravity the best we can do? Is the risk at Talladega worth it? If we are going to spend millions of dollars on something shouldn’t it be making the cars race able around other cars? And shouldn’t the drivers be the ones to tell us that the cars are race able since they drive them? IndyCar needs to take responsibility and make conscious decisions about the type of tracks they race on and what does and doesn’t constitute safe race conditions.

It’s much to soon to point fingers and find blame. We may never know who is to blame. In truth it doesn’t matter who is to blame the price is the same. The time is here to give thanks for the good fortune of one young champion and ask for the blessings and love and comfort for the family of another. The time is here to examine our behavior and our actions and ask ourselves, how would I have felt if the out come was different in Charlotte? Allow me to be the source of that answer, It hurts people It hurts like hell.

~~~~~ **** ~~~~~

Congratulations to Carl Edwards on his NNS win at Charlotte. Even with a wrecked car Carl showed that although Ducks prefer to swim they have wings and can fly.

Congratulations to Ron Hornaday on his 51st win. More and more I am convinced that the Camping World Truck series will be a lesser place without Ron Hornaday on the track.

Congratulations to Matt Kenseth on his victory in the Sprint Cup Series.

It is with a heavy and sad heart that I wish Susie Wheldon and her sons all of the strength and support and love that the world can offer her.  Thoughts and prayers are with you.

Also thoughts and prayers and sympathies to the family of Off-road Champion Rick Huseman and his brother Jeff  who died in a plane crash this afternoon in Barstow.

At times like these this means perhaps more than I intend for it to mean every week. To all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of


  1. I only ran across your article today but had to respond once I read it. What that weekend meant could not have been said more eloquently.

    I’m a relatively new NASCAR fan (not a diehard lifelong fan, but still followed the sport enough to know the tragic histories you referred to) and I only seriously began to follow NASCAR in 2002. Yes, Jimmie Johnson is far and away my favorite driver, and yes, I was in the stands in Charlotte, my first race there.

    I’ve heard Jimmie booed in driver intros and cheered when he’s involved in crashes. But to hear all the cheers after his crash at Charlotte, especially while watching the in-car camera and listening to the audio, I was sickened. And terrified for my favorite driver. I’ll admit to cheering when drivers I dislike crash, but never when they crash that hard or at that angle. Seeing a disliked driver get spun out is worth a cheer, seeing one hit the wall at 180+ at an angle eerily similar to that of Earnhardt’s crash, is not.

    The behavior by so many of the “fans” there was indeed gross and tactless, and made me ashamed to be a NASCAR fan at all. Even worse were the comments I got leaving the track wearing my 48 jacket. They were all along the lines of “too bad he didn’t hit the wall harder” and “I wish he’d hit hard enough to break his neck.” (Duh, he did! Thank goodness for the SAFER barrier and HANS device!)

    I can only hope that those comments were made by fans too drunk to realize just what they were saying and would normally never behave that way. Unfortunately, I have my doubts.

  2. I was horrified during both accidents. What ppl seem to forget that the drivers are human beings, not TV characters or gods. It shows the ignorance of ppl when they hoop and hollar at a driver that took a hard hit. All they see is that the current Champion go into the wall. Disgusting.

    Although I don’t care for Indy Car, I am deeply saddened for the loss of Dan Wheldon. That could have been easily been Jimmie on Saturday. Remember that.

    Good stuff as usual, Ro!!

  3. I have to disagree. People were not cheering because jimmy got in a wreck. I get tired of all the holier than than thou articles about how terrible people are because they cheered when someone crashed. People aren’t cheering the wreck itself, but what it did to jimmy’s chances in the chase. I myself, in the heat of the moment said “yeah” and in the next breath said “boy, I hope he’s okay”. Doesn’t make me rude or tactless. Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt, but in the spirit of competition, any misfortune of a driver who is a threat to mine, providing he doesn’t get injured, will bring a cheer to my household as well. Im sure 99% of the people cheering feel the same way

  4. Your clarity on the subject matter is clear and makes points that will, in time, need to be addressed.

    Your professionalism, at a trying time such as this, is impeccable.

    Your heart, as broken as the loss has made it, is why your views on this sport makes this column a must read.

    Sending thoughts and prayers to Dan Wheldon’s family and friends as well as to those of Rick and Jeff Huseman.

  5. Perhaps this one should have just been filed away, and never seen the light day or published. Why?

    It doesn’t matter if your at your local short track or at Charlotte, your always going to have fans cheer, when drivers wreck and that will never change.

    Nothing in Johnson’s wreck was similar to 2001, but I guess we have a few fans that always have to bring that up and it’s sad to mention that after the tragic lose of Dan Wheldon.

    It’s sad, it’s tragic, the loss of a Champion like Dan, but I never can understand why any fan would question anything regarding the tragedy or try to find blame.

    Rather it’s something that can happen on any race weekend. It doesn’t matter how safe they make the racing. You can never prevent or prepare for freak accidents like the 15 car wreck at Vegas.

  6. I am with you. I just dont understand why the crowd cheers with we have a wreck or a car hits the way. Makes no sense to me. I dont care if it is my favorite driver or someone I hate. That is still a human being in that car that has a family. I have seem some very bad wrecks even at my home track. Some I thought the driver would walk away from, but died in the car. Others I thought we lost the driver and he walked away from it. So there is no reason or sense to cheer for a wreck.

    Jimmie crash did look like a very hard hit. You could tell like you said with the carmea he was not moving very fast in the car. Thank god he is ok. I am not ready to lose another Hero or Champhion. Also, thank you for NASCAR stepping up and making changes to keep our drivers safe. I just hope they keep with the the changes of the cars.

    I watched the INDY race on Sunday. I want to send my thoughts and prays to Dan’s family and friends and to the whole INDY family. I am so sorry for you lose. Dan will truly be missed but not forgotten.


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