INSIGHT: Dan Wheldon’s accident, 10 years on; Part 1

The events of October 16, 2011, stalked Townsend Bell on a daily basis. They walked in front of him, staring back, inciting confrontation.

Ten years on, those events have moved. The memories surrounding Dan Wheldon’s death are packed away, like a small suitcase overstuffed and bursting at the seams, trailing far behind, out of sight. That’s where Bell needs the emotional remnants of the IZOD IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to stay. It’s for the sake of his mental wellbeing.

“It took me a few years to not think about that every day,” Bell acknowledges. “I’m not sure I know the clinical definition of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I would imagine that’s what I was experiencing for a few years. It was a really unpleasant event for a lot of people. A really vivid and deeply disturbing kind of moment, etched in my mind, that I didn’t really know how to deal with.”

Driving the No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry, Bell was one of 15 IndyCar racers involved in the absurd accident that killed two-time Indy 500 winner.

You had to make a decision: You either you go into that race to protect yourself the whole time, or you go all-in,” he says. “I was all-in.”

Footage of the accident, with drivers ricocheting off walls and each other as the carnage and mayhem built, was nothing compared to the firsthand experience inside the cars.

“I went high at the start as cars were going four-wide, and all of a sudden it was like I was riding the draft of the biggest tornado ever,” Bell continues. “Down the back straightaway, maybe three-wide, and then back up to maybe five-wide in the corners, and I’m like, ‘Holy ****, we’re going to the front.’ I mean, it was nuts.

“You’re watching guys bounce off each other. Sparks flying and dust everywhere, and we’re hauling ass and it’s just one giant pack. I started P24 and got to, like, P14 in 11 laps. It was wild. And then the crash happened.”

By nothing other than chance, Bell’s broken Dallara chassis came to a stop near Wheldon’s crumpled car. His instincts said to get as far away as possible from the scene that looked more like a plane crash than anything one might associate with a motor race. But with his friend in close proximity, Bell ignored the urge to flee and ran over to check on Wheldon.

From the moment the crash was triggered Bell’s eyes and senses were battered with images of flying cars, fires, his own meeting with the wall, and lastly, the damage caused by the fence pole that struck Wheldon’s helmet. Bell looked inside the cockpit of the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car and saw movement; the Briton was still alive. But there’s no need to say more about the visuals he experienced in that private encounter.

“I was on a flight, probably four years later, and I happened to sit next to a therapist,” Bell says. “Long flight, LA to Florida, and 90 percent of the time, it’s just a quick hello, take your seat, and then everybody throws on their headphones and off we go into our own worlds. This is one of those rare occasions where it was probably a three-hour conversation.

Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as an Indy-only entrant, and had no races on his schedule for the rest of the season before securing a chance to chase a massive cash prize at the Las Vegas season-finale (above). Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“And over the course of those three hours, she had asked if I’d ever been in really bad accidents and how drivers deal with them. I was able to share Las Vegas with her, and she helped with ways to manage that moment in my ongoing life. Because it really haunted me for a long time. The strategy that I came up with was to see my life as a spectrum of time, and to understand that the moment in time with Dan was deeply disturbing, graphic, horrific on a number of levels.”

The events of October 16 were so severe, even someone as attuned to the risks of the sport as Bell needed to acquire tools to cope with the aftermath.

“Now it lives on a timeline in the past where I can dive deep and go back and open that up like I am right now, open it up in an exploded view, if you will, go back into that moment, and then I put it away,” he says.

“That is where it lives, in that moment of time, no longer in my present. I’ve had to learn how to do that so it wouldn’t completely overwhelm or dominate my conscious thoughts, at the risk of missing other important moments in my life going forward.”

HOLLOW

Having covered 2011’s IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas, Bell’s accounts of lingering shock and sorrow have a familiar feel. Witnessing tragedy at the racetrack is nothing new. It’s often dealt with as a peripheral matter – grieving for the fallen and the family of the departed – without internalizing the event. With Wheldon, it was different, personal. Like something precious had been ripped from inside us.

The sight of drivers, crew members, and even a few reporters openly weeping after the news began to circulate revealed the magnitude of how heavily his loss was received.

Most who met the man – even in a brief encounter – came away feeling like they’d found a new best friend. To those who held longer relationships with Wheldon, his death was like turning off the sun. Outside of his immediate family, enough time has passed for Wheldon’s absence to become normalized. The same assertion cannot be made for October 16, 2011.

Knowing how some of my views on all that happened surrounding Las Vegas have evolved over time, I wanted to check in with others who were there; those I interviewed in the days and months that followed, to see if or how their thoughts have changed with 10 years of hindsight and introspection. I also wanted to gain a stronger understanding of the Las Vegas event and how it was administered. At the time, IndyCar was forthcoming on some matters and silent on others.

And in realizing that many IndyCar fans discovered the series since that fateful event, it’s also worth going back in time and revisiting the event for their sake.

Along with Townsend Bell, Dario Franchitti, the 2011 IndyCar Series champion and one of Wheldon’s closest friends, stepped forward. Sam Schmidt, Wheldon’s team owner for the final two events of the year at Kentucky and Las Vegas, weighs in on the hardest day of his career as an IndyCar entrant.  Graham Rahal, one of IndyCar’s young stars at the time, speaks on the lessons and legacy of the race. And former IndyCar president Randy Bernard, who came up with the IZOD IndyCar World Championship, goes deep inside the event while also responding to his critics.