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Always remembering Dan Wheldon

October 15, 2012

Dan Wheldon’s sidepod at Las Vegas
Anne Proffit photo

In just one day it will be a year since we lost the great Dan Wheldon, winner of the 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR’s 2005 champion while driving for Andretti Green Racing.

Dan was entered in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as a wild card working with Bryan Herta Autosports/Curb/Agajanian and Sam Schmidt Motorsports; if he was able to win the race from the rear of the field, he and a fan would split $5 million.

Instead, his death split our hearts in two.

There have been studies done by the IZOD IndyCar Series to understand the nature of Wheldon’s crash. There were many factors but, in my opinion, it was the diversity of preparation and the number of elderly Dallara cars (making their final competitive appearances) and a group of drivers with varying talents, along with pack racing – those were mitigating factors in the 15-car pileup that caused Wheldon’s demise.

It was a perfect storm, as Wheldon began to make his way towards the front of the large field. When the accident occurred, those of us in the media center at Las Vegas Motor Speedway knew it was a horrid impact. Cars were afire and strewn everywhere; Wheldon flew towards the restraining wire and its pole and just hit it wrong. No other way to explain it.

That his was the only death in this melee is pretty amazing and speaks to the safety of the Dallara chassis – and the great strength of these drivers. Only Pippa Mann sustained a hand injury and Will Power had some back pain, something you’d expect.

It’s so easy to still dwell on the sadness, the loss of Dan Wheldon, but I’d just like to remember the big smile, the willingness to talk with anyone at a racetrack, his love of Susie and their two sons, the maturity that came with marriage and fatherhood – and Dan’s immense talent behind the wheel.

Dan was quite the “dandy” in his first years of competition
Anne Proffit photo

In fact, I think his talent is secondary to his humanity; watching Dan Wheldon grow up in the public eye and become the worldly sage he was when death so cruelly claimed him was quite a thrill for me. Watching him grow from the neat freak who was the foil for Bryan Herta’s devilish pranks to the husband and father who drove for Herta (who matured at about the same rate as Dan) – ah, that was a thrill.

When Dan Wheldon died, I wrote the sad story for an outlet that had hired me to write motorsports stories for them. By Tuesday, they’d told me “no more Dan Wheldon stories – period” so I stopped writing about Dan and just thinking about his loss. That hurt, because there was so very much more to say then, and now about the man he was and the impact he’s had on Indy car racing.

Susie Wheldon made the difficult trip to Indianapolis this past May to receive Dan’s winner’s ring. Her graciousness under this extreme pressure showed all of us how to behave should we ever be in this type of horror show. The show of support for the 2011 Indy 500 winner was immense as Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave away white paper sunglasses for everyone to wear as Bryan Herta drove last year’s winning car on a parade lap, on the first, 26th and 98th laps (representing Wheldon’s car numbers).

When Dario Franchitti, this year’s winner expressed his joy at flanking Wheldon on the BorgWarner trophy – as he wore white Oakley sunglasses throughout the race day and into the following week (not something Dario would ordinarily wear) – I could see the burden lifting a bit from the Scot’s shoulders. I could almost see the tears, too.

Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 – the 100th anniversary race – for Bryan Herta Autosport
Anne Proffit photo

Susie Wheldon made other racetrack appearances, including the season finale on the Auto Club Speedway 2-mile oval. Returning to an oval, to a season finale, must have been a tough chore for Susie but the love she receives – as does Dan’s sister Holly – every time she appears at an Indy car race, has to let her and the entire Wheldon family know we’ll never forget the love of her life.

I’ll keep wearing my own white Oakley sunglasses in honor of Dan Wheldon. Where I once found them silly, they are now comforting. He’s  a year gone now, but Dan Wheldon lives in the broken hearts of everyone he ever met, a champion forever.

By Anne Proffit

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