Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Long Drive Home…

It’s been a week now.  A week since sitting for what seemed an eternity in the stands at LVMS.   Wondering if the endless wait was a horrible thing or something worse.  In that time I have thought about writing this post several times, with the time not being quite right each time.  I have spent the last week staring into large geological chasms of stupefying beauty where nature reveals the artistic creativity of God that has distracted me from pondering the mystery of purpose that constitutes the lives we lead.  The sting of the moment is gone and as memory is a degenerative thing for me, the time to record the feelings, thoughts and memories that remain is now at hand.  I appreciate your patience.
I am not one of the followers of the IndyCar community that is close to the participants, I am in large part a simple fan.  A fan who can point to limited interactions with drivers under controlled circumstances as well as consumption of the IndyCar media product as the basis for my feelings about those drivers.  My pre Vegas thoughts about Dan are summarized HERE.  So I can’t honestly call Dan a friend, Acquaintance is stretching the truth.  He was an Icon of the Sport I love, and as the sport grieves his loss I grieve as well.
Sunday morning began with much promise, the sun was shining, not that that is any great thing in Vegas, but the summer heat had given way to a fall warmth that would be the perfect summer day in the part of the world where I reside.  Jenny and I rode the elevator down at the Golden Nugget, where we were staying courtesy of the AJ Foyt promotion.  When the elevator opened and we walked from lobby of the Rush Tower out into the loading area for busses and into the parking garage we were hit by the large number of people milling about who were obviously involved with the sport as either a participant of the sporting enterprise, a sponsor or a fan.  At that point the day seemed even more promising than merely the weather.
The drive to LVMS from downtown was all of a whopping 13 minutes, parking was simple and the walk to the track reasonable.  We hit will call, picked up our tickets and paddock passes and then proceeded through the tunnel under the track as quickly as possible to “DisneyWorld” otherwise known as the garage and paddock.  Had the camera in hand and it was going to be a great day. 
The first character of the magical kingdom we came across was Simona DeSilvestro.  She looked tense today.  Jenny greeted and cheered her as she walked by.  Our efforts couldn’t elicit a smile or a wave.  This was not the Simona we had seen in the paddock times before.  Today, for many, there was concern both in the air and in the pits of stomachs.  From the young woman recently stung by oval tracks multiple times to veterans Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira who seemed strangely distant this morning, we were reminded of our own concerned premonitions as well as those which had been pronounced by Alex Tagliani two weeks earlier at Kentucky.
For other drivers starting the 3rd or 4th race of their careers, it was a day of excitement and of promise that today would be a window of opportunity for the rest of their careers.  Pippa Mann smiled and laughed with all the Autograph seekers following her on her way from the final driver meeting to her Transporter.  Jay Howard walking the same path a mere 10 feet away, watched bemusedly as a pudgy guy old enough to be Pippa’s father pedaled backwards as fast as he could with his camera pointed at Pippa and his finger on the shutter the whole way.  Wade Cunningham posed and made incredible hulk gestures for me all while eating a pre race sub sandwich. 
There’s a fine line that separates Jay, Wade and Pippa from JR, Hinch and Ana in this sport.  Championships and wins are not the criteria that determines destiny for an IndyLights driver.  Wade Cunningham is one of the best IndyLights talents that IndyCar has chosen to ignore.  He was going to race hard this day and we cannot blame him for that, his future career was on the line.  I feel for him, the criticism he is starting to receive and the internalized grief and sorrow he must be feeling.  If he had spun the same way on any other day, everyone gets out of their cars, the carbon fibre gets swept up, the cars get loaded back on the truck and hauled back to the shop for repair and life would go on as usual.  It happens every race weekend.
That morning I saw JR alternately talking with John Barnes and signing autographs and posing for pictures.  JR is the one driver who recognizes me.  I think it dates back to that evening at in the Mid Ohio paddock during his second year in Lights when he was wandering anonymously through the paddock and I rushed up to him and excitedly asked to have my picture taken with him.  He wasn’t used to that sort of attention yet and I think it stuck with him.  Today I asked him to pose with me for a picture that Jenny could text the nephews.  They, by association, have become fans as well and the MMS message would make their day. 
I asked if I could step into the garage for some pictures, JR asked John Barnes who chuckled “Sure, after today no one will have any secrets anymore”.  Before I headed for the garage and started taking pictures of the engineers checking the mapping of buttons from the driver’s wheel to the Engineering computers, I stepped back and shook JR’s hand and told him “Be safe out there today”.  I hope I didn’t spook him, but in truth it is how we all feel about all the sport’s participants each and every race day.  I hope they never forget that.
We arrived at our seats in the Petty terrace with about 15 minutes to spare…I think…I don’t really remember much here.  It is all a blur for a while.  I remember texting with a friend of mine who was in the center grandstand.  The race started and I tweeted “4 laps in the field is still one massive 4 wide pack”.  Then it all happened, a cloud of smoke, fireballs and a storm of race car parts exploded in front of me, playing out in what seemed to be slow motion.  The moment lasted too long.  The only thing I could muster and tweet was “Oh my God”.  I counted cars as they pulled onto pit road.  14 unaccounted for.
We all sat and listened to IMS on the PA.  I checked twitter…Often.  Soon we all realized that everyone but Dan was out of their car and not in life threatening circumstances, but no word on Dan yet.  From the Petty terrace we could see the helicopter warming up in front of us.  We could see the canopy where the ambulance would pull in and the doors a driver would go through to the med center.  No ambulance yet.  It was taking a while. 
I had a long lens with me, it would get pretty close to the scene down there.  I decided not to use it.  Somewhere between “Press” and “Fan” lies the “Blogger”.  I have always considered myself and this forum to be closer to the “Fan” end of the spectrum.  Real news gatherers and photographers, were on the scene and this was their Job.  My job was to sit, hope and pray for Dan. 
In succession the ambulance arrived at the care center and the car was brought up, shrouded in a yellow tarp.  Underneath it was the outline of a car that clearly had no roll hoop.  At that point I knew, no matter how this turned out, things would never be the same.  I worried about Sam Schmidt having a driver suffer the same outcome he endures to this day.  Realism was setting in for me, that paralysis was likely the most positive outcome the day might bring.
They wheeled Dan out on the stretcher, put him in the copter and it took off.  Then we waited.  Apparently rumors were flying left and right, but I heard none of them.  That is a tribute to the fine people I follow on twitter, while they may have heard or guessed or suspected things, they never reported what they didn’t know to be absolutely true.  You are a great group.
In my mind I waffled on whether the wait was a good or a bad thing.  If he had passed, they would just tell us.  If it was taking a while, then heroic efforts were underway to ensure two young boys still had a father.  I was bargaining.  We all were.  Then I saw the 98 machine wheeled off pit road.  My heart sank.  The only car the Sam Schmidt team had left in the field was going home.  I tweeted what I saw and then just sat and waited for the word to come.  Tony Kanaan was on the big screen after the drivers meeting.  The look on his face said it all.
The announcement came, the crowd let out a moan and then went silent, sitting quietly in a saddened shock.  I sat in tears and we waited for the 5 laps salute.  The saddest 5 laps IndyCar has ever seen.  I pulled out the camera and started shooting.  I got the 77 on the scoring pylon.  I got the crews and league officials lined up on the white pit road line and I got the cars crossing the scoring line three by three.  Most of all I distracted myself from the reality of the moment.
The crowd started to dissipate after the salute laps were completed.  We sat for a while longer, there would be traffic in the lots.  We had no place to go.  It dawned on me at that moment, thinking back to the 500 just four months earlier, that Dan had not only done a miraculous thing on the track, winning the 500 for a team competing in only its second race, but he had also achieved a sort of elusive perfection of style and fashion.  Crisp white with Orange and Gray highlights, all complimenting themselves in a manner that only Dan could have pulled off.  Is it a silly thought?  Sure it is, but I doubt a driver will ever look that good in a suit or a car ever again. 
We staggered back to the car, the sun was catching up with me, I needed water and was beginning to get a pretty annoying headache.  We sat in the rental as the rest of the crowd streamed and rolled by. 
I didn’t know Dan and he didn’t know me in any meaningful way, but as Jenny and I sat there, my thoughts drifted back to a time three years earlier.  At a go Kart track about 20 minutes from my home there is a high profile endurance Kart race every October.  In 2008, upon hearing the list of IndyCar drivers participating in the event with the Karting regulars, we decided to go check it out.  One of the participants was Dan.  Where we stood was quite a bit away from the drivers having their prerace meeting, but we could spot Dan.  It was hard not to.  He was wearing this brand new, blank, but blindingly white driver’s suit.  He couldn’t be missed.  We noticed that after the meeting he was heading back to the garages, specifically, the men’s room. 
Jenny and I knew better that to pester him while he was in the bathroom so we waited about 10 yards away from the door, Jenny with cell phone camera in hand.  He exited the bathroom, we gave him 5 good steps and then “Smile Dan!” He did and then quipped with a grin that we at least gave him the dignity of getting out of the men’s room.  Yes we were star stuck dorks at that point in our following of IndyCar – there’s no denying it. 
He hopped in his Kart and the race began.  It was going fairly smoothly for a while, but then not sure what led to it, but we saw a Kart sporting a driver in the shiniest white driver’s suit you’ll ever see, go off the track and into a pile of hay bales.  Dan got out from under the kart and bales, got some help flipping the Kart over and then drove into the pits.  Last we saw of Dan that day.
About six months later, in Milwaukee for the last well attended race at that great IndyCar track, Jenny and I were going through the autograph lines.  We chose to hit Dan’s first.  We got to Dan and I asked him how his Karting career was coming, he said something like it was going great and he was looking forward to doing as much of it as he could in the future.  I suggested with a smile, that he be careful Karting in New Castle, I heard the hay bales there ate Englishmen alive.  He laughed and said he knew of no such thing.  We both laughed.  Not wanting to hold the line up further we moved along, where we met a seemingly shy female Lights driver with green hair from England.   I glanced back at Dan, he looked up, made Eye contact and winked.
As we sat in the car in the parking lot, I kept wanting the remind Jenny of those moments, but I couldn’t.  I’d lose it.
We finally got going from the track but with the lack of fluids and headache catching up with me, we pulled off at the next exit and went looking for some water and Excedrin at the local truck stop.  After checking out we glanced down the hallway towards the Pizza Hut attached to the convenience store.  At the drink fountain I saw Scott Dixon.  He looked shell shocked.  I felt the need to do something, but what could I possibly say to the man who just lost a former teammate, who shared the same role in a risky profession with two children of his own.  I can’t begin to imagine the thoughts and feelings that were weighing on Scott in that moment.  I walked up patted him on the back and said something like “Scott, you guys are our heroes, take care”.  I wish I had said something better, but I don’t really know what that might have been.  Jenny wanted to give him a hug, but touched his arm and said something they both got a little smile out of.  Perhaps leaving him alone would have been the right thing to have done, but even if we don’t know each other, on that day we were all family.
Once back downtown, we got on the parking garage in the Nugget and began the ride down.  The floor below us, the elevator stopped and a man got on.  Not sure if it was on his hat or his Jacket, but “Las Vegas Motor Speedway Safety Team” was embroidered.  He carried a lunch cooler with him, reminded me of a Steel worker of old heading home from a long day at the mill.  He saw we had been to the race, I asked him “Rough day I Imagine?” He replied “Yes it was” and looked away.  We did as well.  I wish I had thanked him for the work that he and his co-workers do each weekend.  I like to think that heaven is a place where others will know the feelings in our hearts, not just the words we managed to utter in the moment.
Once back in the room, I took a handful of pills and laid down hoping to feel better.  After an hour and a half I got up and decided to scroll through the images I had taken of the Parade laps.  Posting some of those would be how the blog would mark Dan’s passing. As I scrolled though the images, I hit the back button once more and saw an image I did not expect to see.  Car parts, brake and tire smoke and oil fires.  I did not remember doing so, but apparently, in the moment, I had reached for my camera and sprayed the shutter.  I put the camera down, nearly dropping it.  Quickly DM’ed a friend and asked him what he thought I should do with the images.  He said I didn’t need to do anything with them.  The world will have seen enough already.  The parade lap images were what the IndyCar world needed, not fireballs and carnage.  Thank You Doug.
I ran downstairs and over to the Golden Gate to get a turkey sandwich at the snack counter.  After eating, on my way back the lights went down on Fremont street.  The light and video show of the Fremont Experience was about to start.  This hour’s selection…Don McClean’s “American Pie”.  Standing amongst thousands of others bemused by the electronic spectacle, I fought back tears and thought to myself that surely today was the day “The racing died”.
The next three hours are a blur of ESPN segments and insomnia.  I eventually found myself again with my camera and a tripod.  Walking up and down Fremont taking time lapse images of every neon sign I could find.  As I staggered back to the nugget at 2 am, the street cleaners were out with their machines cleaning off one night’s hedonistic residue in preparation for the next.  A trio of hookers were cruising for the evening’s last customer.  No ma’am, I’m fine, moving right along. 
I got up to my room and again began to look at the images on my camera.  Past the 107 images of neon, Past the 24 shots of the parade laps, were 10 other images.  Working from the reverse order from which they were taken, I zoomed in and examined each of them.  When I got to the third one in the string, I saw a car, upside down, in the catch fence.  Behind it a fireball reminiscent of a comet in the sky.  At that moment I broke down and cried.  There was nothing else that could be done.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the rundown of events, JP. This had to be a hard one to write, but I hope that you feel a little better having gotten it all down.


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