When the crew workers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway pulled a yellow tarp over the No. 77 open-wheel car, Bruce Martin knew it meant something bad.
Martin, an Indiana U alumnus from the class of 1982, was covering the IndyCar Series season finale for SportsIllustrated.com. He was near the entrance of pit road when a wreck began in turn one. It ended with a 15-car wreck and the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
“You could hear the expression of the crowd over the sound of the 34 racing engines and the crashing going on in the background. It was just kind of a collective gasp,” Martin told NPR on Thursday. “It was a scene that I had never seen at an IndyCar race. That many cars. I mean, it was half the field.
“This was just cars being launched — launched into the air once they ran into the back of other cars because of the way the wheels are. I mean, these things looked like missiles being launched out of a silo.”
Each of the drivers involved in the wreck had to be evaluated at the medical center.
“They were in there while Wheldon was being tended to,” Martin said. “As each driver was being released, that’s when word started to circulate that he may not have made it.”
Members of the media began to report the story and waited for any available news. Wheldon was airlifted from the track and taken to Las Vegas’ University Medical Center. Two hours into a red flag to stop the race, the drivers were called to a meeting.
“That was pretty much the indication that they were being told he was gone,” Martin said.
This Sunday, a memorial service will be in remembrance of Wheldon at 4 p.m. at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
As IU junior Evan Fetherolf sat working on homework on Sunday in Bloomington, his phone showed he had a text message.
“(My friend) asked, ‘Are you watching the race,’ and I said ‘No,’” Fetherolf said. “He texted me back, ‘You should be. There was just a big wreck. I’m pretty sure Dan Wheldon is dead.”
Fetherolf said he was shocked. The Speedway, Ind., native grew up three blocks from turn one of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has been a Wheldon fan since his first Indianapolis 500 win.
“It’s sad,” Fetherolf said. “He was a real recognizable guy in the sport. He didn’t necessarily win a whole lot, but everybody really liked him. He had a lot of fans. It’s a blow to the sport.”
IU junior Eric Wertenberger, also an IndyCar fan, agreed that the severity of the crash was as extreme as it gets.
“It brought back the danger involved in racing and the inherent risk you take when you get in the car,” Wertenberger said. “It’s always like the elephant in the room. Nobody really acknowledges it, but the danger is always there. It never comes back to reality until you see someone in a fatal accident.”
While Fetherolf said the first IndyCar death since 2006 does raise some questions about safety, he added that IndyCar has been working on making improvements since the passing of Paul Dana that year.
“It comes down to the fact that anytime you’re going 200 miles in a car and you’re six inches away from a car that’s also going 200 miles, it’s not always going to add up well,” Fetherolf said.
Earlier this year, it did add up for Wheldon. He was rounding turn four in the 2011 Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Rookie driver J.R. Hildebrand was leading before he crashed on the last lap. Wheldon drove to the finish line as the winner.
“He drove a very smart race to be in the position to capitalize when somebody else made a mistake,” Martin said.
Martin said Wheldon’s emotion in his second IMS victory was truly special.
“To see his boyish enthusiasm, to see him grab that bottle of milk, take a big swig out of it in victory lane, then pour it on his head,” Martin said. “This was just raw, human emotion.”
In all the post-tragedy media coverage Martin has covered, he hasn’t grasped on a personal level that the driver he knew, the driver that was a smiling father who spent time pulling pranks on other drivers and visiting hospitality suites with his wife Suzie and his son Sebastian, is gone.
“It’s almost like I keep expecting to go to the next race and see Dan Wheldon with these big old white teeth of his walking down pit lane in these ridiculously bright white shoes that he wore sometimes,” Martin said. “Just to see him joking and laughing and see him saying ‘Hi’ to everyone. I still expect to see that when IndyCar starts next season, but he’s not going to be there anymore.”
After the announcement of Wheldon’s passing, the racers drove a five-lap tribute for Wheldon. In the background, bagpipes played.
“It was a very emotional scene,” Martin said. “It was one where I had to describe what happened for my story. Dario Franchitti with tears in his eyes and hugging his wife Ashley Judd, then going down pit lane and hugging Mario Andretti who had just signed Dan Wheldon to a contract next season earlier that morning. The guy not only had a great career, he had a bright future ahead of him.”