Commentary

Dan Wheldon: Unanswerable questions

Why? For what possible reason? Where is the lesson in a sports tragedy like this?

Originally Published: October 17, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Others here will write about what happened Sunday afternoon and about how it happened. They'll write about who Dan Wheldon was and talk about what he meant to auto racing.

I leave them to the work of cause and effect and after-action telemetry. I leave them to thumbnail biography, and to the forensics of sadness. Something went wrong, someone is dead. Now come the columnists and the Greek chorus of social media to lay blame. Can honest sense ever be made of what happened?

[+] EnlargeGrieving fan
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenThis fan near pit row, like the rest of us, simply couldn't make sense of Dan Wheldon's death.

What struck me hardest was the waiting.

Television in general has no patience. It excels in action, fails miserably at inaction. Talks too much. And for all the suddenness of that crash Sunday, what I felt most powerfully was the second-by-second grind of the wait that followed. How badly was Dan Wheldon hurt? When would the news come? This was the rare intrusion of life -- and death -- into the vacuum of our usual shiny abstractions and entertainments.

For a long time Sunday afternoon, something was actually at stake. How odd and terrible that felt.

I've spent a lot of time at race tracks. Drivers don't talk much about danger or about risk or about fear. They certainly don't talk about death. They talk instead about engineering. About building safer cars or making safer tracks or reaching safer decisions. They talk about what can be controlled rather than what cannot. They look at the machine; they talk about the machine. They don't talk about the edge of anything, or look too deeply into whatever might lie beyond it.

There isn't much poetry in what they say. Nor does racing produce much of that character-building nonsense or two-bit metaphor we hear from other sports. Football, for instance, which drops inspirational sayings like autumn drops leaves.

Racing does not. Racing doesn't teach a lesson. Nor do most racers. Many of them can't even tell you why they're in the cockpit. They don't know. Racing isn't what they do. It's who they are.

[+] EnlargeFranchitti/Judd
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesWe all look to our loved ones in times of tragedy, as Dario Franchitti and his wife, Ashley Judd, did on Sunday.

Dan Wheldon knew the risks every time he lowered himself into the seat. He knew the risks to himself and to his family.

Racers die racing.

It is the strength and weakness of our nature to look for meaning in these terrible moments, and to manufacture meaning when none can be found. And try as I might, I don't know what Dan Wheldon's death means. I don't know who it serves or what might be learned from it. That death comes to us all? That life is short? That to die doing what you love is still to wind up dead?

I knew those things already. So did you. And this is too high a price for the reminder.

Thus, I fall back on the founding premise of this column. A question.

What are sports for?

Help me answer that, please. Because this morning, more than most, I don't know.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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