INSIGHT: Dan Wheldon’s accident, 10 years on, Part 2

“There are very few days that are imprinted on your life forever, that you know exactly where you were. And to me, this was that day,” former IndyCar president Randy Bernard says of October 16, 2011.

“That was the most miserable day of my life. And most numbing day of my life. And you feel the pain, not only for Dan’s family, but all the drivers, all the friends. There was nothing good that came out of that day.”

With the field nearly halved after 15 of the 34 entries became entangled in the lap 11 crash, the IZOD IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was temporarily stopped. Safety workers, medical workers, and tow truck operators had an immense mess to handle with broken cars strewn throughout Turns 1 and 2, and a steady stream of injured or shaken drivers to treat in the infield care center.

Amid the trackside footage captured during the live broadcast, and from the handful of in-car camera perspectives, surreal and astonishing imagery was replayed. Cars seemingly defied gravity as the open-wheel slam dance briefly erupted for the world to see.

Somewhat lost in the moment was Dan Wheldon’s accident. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, his was a crash within a crash within a crash. As his fellow drivers emerged from their stricken cars, it was the concentration of safety personnel surrounding Wheldon’s No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda, hurriedly working, that told us a sizable crisis was being managed.

Within the media center, IndyCar’s communications team was bombarded with questions about Wheldon for which they did not have answers; ABC’s broadcast team offered the most immediate and accurate information until its cameras abruptly cut away from his car.

If the same crash happened with today’s 4K60 Ultra HD technology, few questions would have been left unanswered within seconds of the accident’s end. Ten years ago, however, the lack of crisp imagery meant the audience was unable to freeze the incident frame by frame and conduct rapid investigations of their own by DVR or mobile phone. Left to rely on the trickle of news that was coming out from the series, eerie feelings of worry and dread began to surface.

INNER STRUGGLE 

Directly below the second-floor media center was the conference room where IndyCar drivers — those fortunate to escape the crash and those who were checked and released by medical staff — gathered in secured privacy. Outside in the paddock, Bernard received a powerful quartet — three who were in the race and one who was in attendance, albeit sidelined due to injury — to speak on the behalf of the 34.

Bernard (above) announced the confirmation of Wheldon’s passing to the media, in a day that he admits will remain “imprinted” on his life. Michael L. Levitt/Motorsports Images

Randy Bernard: So when the race was red flagged, I had Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Justin Wilson, four representatives of the drivers, come into my trailer in my office and they said, ‘We don’t want to race anymore. It’s over.’ And I’m like, ‘Fair enough. I’m not going to make you race.’  

You know, at that point, we’re still live on television. Just about that time. Mario Andretti walks in and asked to see me. Before I step out for Mario and leave those four in my office, the doctor comes in and says, ‘We don’t believe Dan’s going to make it.’ He told me with those four in my office. It was very emotional inside there.  

And so then for Mario, I walk outside. Mario is very strong, like, ‘Don’t you dare cancel this event,’ almost like a typewriter with his finger on my chest. ‘Don’t you dare cancel this event. We’ve never done it. This won’t be good for the sport. Races have to go on. That’s racing.’  

And yes, he’s right. That’s exactly how the world has always handled it. In the past, if you look at the 60s, you know, out of 100 drivers, they lost like 35. Mario was accustomed to this through his racing career. But what I don’t feel Mario had a clear grasp on was the power of social media. And I’m like, ‘Mario, we can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to convince those drivers in there to go get in their cars if they don’t want to. It’s very emotional, but you’re welcome to go in there and talk to them and I’ll leave you guys alone.’ 

While Mario was in my office with those guys, I was outside talking to our PR team about everything going on. Dan was on the helicopter, on the way to the hospital. Then, a little later when I’m back in my office, the doctor comes in and goes, ‘Bad news. Dan didn’t make it.’ And so I had to take that and let everybody know.  

With Andretti, the immensely influential legend set among the driver representatives, a new course of action awaited IndyCar’s president.

Randy Bernard: I get back to my office and Mario says these guys have decided they want to race. I looked at them and they were all in agreement. They were acknowledging that they were willing to do it. I go, ‘Here’s the deal, guys. You’re gonna have a driver’s meeting. The team owners aren’t gonna make this decision. The drivers are going to make this decision. If 90 percent of the drivers say they’re fine with racing, we’ll go on and do it.’ 

At the time, I told [IndyCar safety officer] Charles Burns, ‘I want these drivers separated from their owners. I don’t want the owners telling their drivers that they’ve got to go race. I want to hear the hardcore facts from them. So I gave him 15-20 minutes to gather them before I went over to the meeting room. And we hadn’t announced yet that Dan had passed.  

The first time I walked in, there was no resolution. And so a lot of emotions in there; some drivers at this point, of course, knew that Dan had passed. They needed more time to figure out what they wanted to do, and so I decided to walk into the team owner’s meeting.  

And as I’m walking out from the driver’s meeting, Roger Penske is outside waiting and follows me out. And he said, ‘Randy, let me tell you, this will be one of the biggest decisions you make.’ He goes, ‘You make the decision that you want.’ I’ll never forget that. It was very classy. And he really just wanted was in the best interest of the sport. He didn’t tell me what he wanted. He just gave me assurance, like, ‘Hey, this is your call, nobody else’s, and you need to make it.’ And I walked back into the drivers’ room and said, ‘Okay, enough is enough. We’re not going to continue the race.’  

As Wheldon’s death was confirmed among the drivers, Bernard’s call to end the race was later hailed as a relief for those who had no interest in resuming the event. Universal support for that decision, however, was not available.

Randy Bernard: I know Mario was very upset. And he had every right to be. I’m not here to tell you he was wrong. He came from a different generation on how racing was looked at. And again, I took Roger Penske’s advice to the heart. He said, ‘With social media, this isn’t what we need right now.’  

I mean, we’ve lost a life and it’s over. We’re going to do tribute laps to Dan, and then we’ll be done.