Reality TV doesn’t get more real than this. On Sunday afternoon, ABC Sports broadcast the end of Dan Wheldon’s life.
The Las Vegas 300, the last race of the IndyCar season, had just gotten under way when what announcer Scott Goodyear ominously called “the big one” began to unfold. Drivers were jostling three abreast on the tight oval track, and then a couple of cars collided. Two cars, then four, then a dozen cars were suddenly spinning, bouncing off the walls and each other. As the processional order of the race deteriorated into the chain reaction chaos of an accident, it was compelling viewing. For a few seconds at least.
Then several cars, including Wheldon’s, went airborne, the sleek open-wheel racers and drivers inside now nothing more than projectiles in low-earth orbit. The chain-link catch fences designed to protect the spectators did little to absorb the violent forces of a car traveling at more than 200 mph.
The footage of the 15-car crash was vivid. Shockingly so. After the live feed, one replay followed, a low angle, then a high angle, then a reverse angle, all in slow motion, intercut with live footage of the rescue crews attending to the critically injured Wheldon.
In the booth, Goodyear and another former racer, Eddie Cheever, sensed the gravity of the situation and adopted an almost funereal tone. But the succession of HD replays invited an almost CSI-style analysis. The in-car footage from Will Power’s car, which also took flight, looked like nothing so much as a racing video game, the video ending when a flying tire takes out the tiny car-mounted camera, narrowly missing Power himself. Clearly there was a similar point-of-view shot from Wheldon’s car. (The viewers were, as they say, riding along with Wheldon until the director cut away to a wider shot of the unfolding crash.) The crew in the ABC truck had the good taste—or the good fortune—not to air it.
Driver Danica Patrick, the IndyCar series’ biggest star, who was competing in her last IndyCar race on her way to a higher-profile NASCAR gig next season, inadvertently summed up the race’s grisly appeal: “It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible”
And while no one will say it, especially now, crashes like this—serious ones, and even fatal ones—are an integral part of auto racing’s life-imitates-art appeal. IndyCar’s YouTube page features a playlist called “Crashes,” and the caption below the headline goes quickly from somber to gonzo: “Safety and innovation are 2 hallmarks of the IndyCar Series...Thank God because IndyCar Series drivers have some of the Hardest (sic) hits in all of racing. That’s why its (sic) so frigg’n cool!”
Heading into this weekend, IndyCar clearly needed all the buzz it could get. Its CEO arranged to have the cars drive down the Las Vegas strip before the race and offered to resign if the broadcast didn’t draw an 0.8 Nielsen rating.
Wheldon, for his part, typified the sport’s precarious position. Handsome and charming, the 33-year old Brit was a two-time Indy 500 champ, his win this year coming in a nail-biting finish when rookie J.R. Hildebrand crashed in the final turn while in the lead. And yet Wheldon couldn’t find a regular ride this season and was in Las Vegas as kind of a novelty act, competing for a $5 million bonus purse (which would be split with a lucky fan at home) for any non-regular driver who could win the race. Wheldon’s otherwise upbeat blog provided a reality check: “If we start the race [3 mph] off the pace, it’s going to be difficult to keep up.”
Instead, of a dollar-and-a-dream payoff, viewers instead watched as Wheldon paid the ultimate price. “This is happening in real time and in real life,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University and author of New New Media. “It’s very rare that we can see a step-by-step transformation from something that’s fun and entertaining to something that suddenly goes bad.” It was a jarring moment, different in degree but not in kind from, say, watching American Idol contestant Casey Abrams steal a smooch from J.Lo on live TV.
But this wasn’t Idol. “When there’s a possibility of death, it really ups the ante,” says Levinson. And evidently up the interest, as well. The grisly pictures of Wheldon’s crash made the cover of Monday’s New York Post, and one YouTube replay of the accident collected more than 2.5 million hits just over 24 hours. Indeed, the last time auto racing claimed coverage beyond the sports section was a decade ago, in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. While Earnhart was a legitimate pop culture legend with a huge following, Wheldon was largely unknown outside racing circles. What made Wheldon’s death front-page news was simply the quality and quantity of the images.
Levinson likens the repeated high-definition replays of Wheldon’s crash to the ubiquitous images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center just after 9/11. There’s a biological basis for our seemingly insatiable hunger for just a little more information, he notes. “It’s like getting a shot of dopamine,” he says. “That’s why we have a taste for seeing the same thing over and over.”
In the wake of Wheldon’s accident, the safety of the sport has suddenly become a hot-button issue—NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson has called for an end to IndyCar racing on high-speed oval tracks—even though the risks haven’t changed materially since last weekend, when the same racers competed in relative anonymity. And just as surely, the replays of Wheldon’s horrific crash will drift out of the headlines, replaced by shocking images of a different sort.
Still it’s also hard to imagine that such a large subset of the America public will have watched the last earthly moments of a married father of two—again and again and again—and remain totally unaffected.
“Auto racing is really unique in the sports world in terms of the danger,” says Levinson. “Maybe it’s healthy for the public to see when something goes wrong.”