I was born and grew up one-half mile away from the Indianapolis 500 track. And, there were three drivers who spent the month of May with us during the years 1949 through 1952. Those three drivers were my first heroes – Walt Brown, Bill Schlindler, and Lee Wallard.
Lee and his family spent the entire month of May with us the year he won back in 1951. As a seven-year old little boy, it was very exciting to see him drive his new Indy Pace Car, with a trailer hauling his beautiful number 99 Belanger Special, and park them in front of our home after he won the race. The next day hundreds of neighbors were gathered in our front yard. I got to tell them how Lee was soaking in the bathtub, as I was sitting on the commode. Lee asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied, “Oh Mr. Wallard, I want to be just like you!”
Back then the drivers did not have much in the way of safety. They wore a hard cardboard type of helmet, and plastic goggles, along with a seatbelt that went across the top of their legs. Two of my three heroes died in racing accidents. Lee was burned very badly during the very next race after he won the 1951 Indy 500. Lee never raced again. The drivers were very close friends back then, and I found out a few years ago, that Lee was paid in cash for winning the Indy 500. He stuffed his winnings into a duffle bag, that was used in a flag football game later with the other drivers and mechanics.
The Indy 500 has always been a part of who I am, and who I have become. It was also a very big part of my mother’s life as well. Mom and I saw the 1955 Indy 500 – the year that the greatest Indy 500 driver of all time died coming out of turn two. The years slipped by and I did not see another race until 1991, when I took my wife and her father to see “THE GREATEST SPECTACLE IN RACING”. Since then I flew up to Indy to see the 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2004, and this year – 2011. This year was very special since it was the 100th year for the race, and Dan Wheldon won when a rookie crashed in the very last turn of the race. That was the second Indy 500 win for Dan.
Yesterday, Sunday October 16, 2011, the winner of two Indy 500 races, Dan Wheldon, was killed in a horrific crash involving 15 cars traveling at 220 miles per hour at the 1.5 mile track in Las Vegas.
They stopped the race, and never did resume. The car owners and drivers voted to stop the race, and drive five laps in honor of their fallen friend and comrade.
What amazes me were the concerns the drivers had expressed earlier in the week. But yet they raced on as they were paid to do. At the beginning of the Indy 500 – back in 1911, the ruling body derived a formula for the maximum number of cars allowed to race based on the length of the race track. The formula was 400 feet for every car.
The track at Indy is 2.5 miles, and that equates to 33 cars maximum for the Indy 500.The Las Vegas track is 1.5 miles around, and 1.5 Miles X 5,280 Feet = 7,920 Feet. Now divide 400 feet into 7,920 feet and you get 19.8 cars.
During the 12th lap of the final 2011 Indy Car race in Las Vegas on Sunday, October 16, 2011, 15 cars were involved in the worst Indy car wreck in history out of the 34 starting cars. If you subtract 15 cars from 34 cars you get 19 cars.
So why did Las Vegas add a 34th car when they were already way over the maximum according to a formula based on race cars traveling at 75mph?
Could it be the five-million dollars that Dan Wheldon would have won, had he won? There was a contest that included one lucky fan if Dan won. Dan started in last place, 34th, and if he won the race, he would have won 2.5 million dollars, and a very lucky fan would also have won 2.5 million dollars. Or, was it the five first time Indy drivers? Or, was it the over-crowding of the track? Or, was it just the high rate of speed that caused the accident?
The fastest I have ever driven was 140 mph in a 1993 Indy Pace car. I drove that fast for only a couple of minutes on a turnpike on the way to Tulsa back in 1994, and my entire body was shaking. I cannot begin to comprehend what the drivers of today must feel traveling one football field per second.
My heart broke yesterday as I heard the announcer state that Dan was married and has two very young children. Now, Mrs. Wheldon has to answer the question that any mother dreads from her children, “Mommy – Where’s Daddy?”
© 2011, Pierre Cassidy. All rights reserved.