Two years ago, IndyCar faced one of it’s darkest days when a 15 car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway claimed the life of Dan Wheldon. Wheldon’s loss has left a void that can never be filled and he was a one of a kind person with an uncanny ability behind the wheel and a loving, caring human being that had no enemies.
I never had the chance to meet Dan as a journalist, although I did meet him at an autograph signing at Nashville Superspeedway in 2007, but it was a 5 minutes that I will never forget. I was impressed by how he was taking the time to talk to everybody in line, rather than just signing autographs one at a time and moving on. He truly cared about his fans and that made him someone to cheer for.
His career numbers speak for themselves with a dominating series championship in 2005, 2 Indianapolis 500 wins and 16 career wins, most of which were at Andretti Autosport and Target Chip Ganassi Racing and his final win at the 2011 500 driving for his old friend Bryan Herta.
His last win may be his most memorable. Wheldon was let go by Panther Racing at the end of the season and was in a position drivers do not like to be in–unemployed after a rough few years at Panther where we went winless. At the same time Bryan Herta Autosport was getting its IndyCar program off the ground and was in need of a shot in the arm. Come the weekend of the Long Beach Grand Prix, it was announced that Wheldon had signed with Bryan Herta Autosport with a primary sponsor in Justin Timberlake’s clothing line William Rast. From that moment, Wheldon was very confident that the team was going to win the race and was thankful for the team and his sponsor giving him the opportunity to make another run at the Brickyard. It was the confidence he gave in the team that elevated the teams morale heading into the month of May.
It was his belief in us that elevated our gain and made us better
Come the month of May, Dan qualified the car in 6th and on race day he kept the car in the hunt all day long. Come the last lap, JR Hildebrand had the 500 in the palm of his hand until he stuffed it in the wall on the final corner of the race. Dan was running 2nd and passed Hildebrand’s wounded car and took the win, only leading the final few hundred feet of the race.
While Dan had already won the race once, it was a different Dan in Indianapolis’ Victory Lane. The Dan of before was young, cocky and a bit petulant at times, but times had changed since 2005. Dan had become a father to two boys: Sebastian and Oliver which is a life changing proposition for anybody which he enjoyed and he had an equally loving relationship to his wife Susie. Dan basked in the glory of winning the 500 again by drinking the milk, kissing the bricks with his son and saluting the fans.
The remainder of the season saw Dan take on the role as test pilot for the 2012 IndyCar which has been named the DW-12 in his honor and become an ambassador for the sport. He also entered the broadcast booth for a handful of races replacing Wally Dallenbach, Jr. while he fulfilled his duties covering NASCAR for TNT, a role that Dan fit perfectly in.
Still, he was a racecar driver and that is where he wanted to be. He joined Sam Schmidt Motorsports for a go at the $5,000,000 bounty presented initially to any driver from a competing series to win the season finale at Las Vegas and race morning, he signed with Michael Andretti to replace Danica Patrick in the Go Daddy car. Things were looking up for him and his family as he was entering what was a career reborn.
Sadly the events of October 16, 2011 changed IndyCar forever, and the community lost a great friend and competitor. It brings back to reality the fact that racing is a dangerous sport and life is very fragile and can be taken from us at anytime.