Dan Wheldon: A Champion

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 17, 2011 8:24 pm

On days such as these, it is human nature to search for the perfect words, to say just the right thing, to put your finger exactly on the pulse of the greiving.  As the hours continue to roll by since the announcement of Dan Wheldon’s passing, I continue to realize there are no perfect words, there is no right thing to say.  It is a tragedy, and we, as individuals, must deal with it in the best way we can.

There are many tributes already written to Dan, all of them far more eloquent than I have been given talents to match.  Instead, I feel it is best to simply write what I feel as it comes to me.  I hope that you might grant me latitude as my thoughts (much like yours, I’m sure) are still a jumbled mess of confusion, shock, and sadness at this point.

Once the initial shock of the moment began to somewhat wear off, I admit that there was a bit of joy for Dan.  I think we all hope that when our time comes to leave this world that we might be called away doing something we truly love.  Other than spending time with his wife and two beautiful young sons, there was nothing Dan Wheldon loved more than driving an Indy car.  He knew he was one of the best at his craft, and he was probably having more fun in those 11 laps than he could have ever expressed.  I can only hope that when my time comes, I will go out rejoicing the very opportunity I have been given as I know Dan was doing.

Dan Wheldon will always be remembered as one of the greatest oval drivers of his generation.  His record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the stuff of legend.  Now, in his passing, Dan joins the likes of Gaston Chevrolet, Ray Keech, and George Robson as champions of the Indianapolis 500 who gave their lives for the sport they love before they could return to defend their title.  When the admission ticket for the 96th Indianapolis 500 is unveiled, I think it would be appropriate for the Speedway to commemorate Dan’s passing with a black stripe on Dan’s image.

I would be remiss to complete my thoughts on this tragedy without lifting up those men and women who have worked so tirelessly over the past 50 years to make days like Sunday a truly rare event.  There was time not too long ago, certainly within our parents’ time if not our own, when death was a common element of racing.  It was both accepted and expected.  However, through the efforts of figures such as Sir Jackie Stewart, Bill Simpson, Tony George, Dr. Steve Olvey, Dr. Robert Hubbard, and more than I could possibly name here, tragedies such as Dan’s passing shock us because we are not accustomed to losing our heroes as previous generations were.  We recognize that this is not the first tragedy, nor will it be the last, that we in the racing world will endure, but men such as these and their successors will continue to ensure that safety continues to move forward as the show goes on.

And the show will go on.  It must.  Racing sadly has a history of losing its heroes, but the racing continues.  When names like Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Clark, Ayrton Senna, and Dale Earnhardt passed, their comrades were able to honor them by moving on and continuing to race in the following weeks as they knew their fallen friend would have wanted them to do.  Sadly, the drivers of today’s IZOD IndyCar Series must endure five long months to get back in the saddle again, much in the same way Greg Moore’s friends had to do following his death in the 1999 CART finale at California Speedway.  The irony, of course, is that when they return to competition, they will do so in a brand new car that Dan was instrumental in bringing to fruition.

I first met Dan as a fan at Indianapolis in 2004.  At the time, I remember thinking of him as somewhat bratty, loving the bachelor life, and ripe with a sense of entitlement.  However, I was able to look past that because I could immediately see the love and passion for what he was doing.  As the years went by and he continued to mature as both a man and a driver, I came to respect him more and more.  His charisma and charm quickly won me over as a fan long before I had any dealings with him as part of More Front Wing.  To say I knew Dan well would be a disrespectful overstatement, but I was fortunate to have had several encounters with him over the past two and a half years.  His passion for his sport was matched only by his willingness to give all of himself to promote the Series he so dearly loved.  In our final conversation at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, there was an excitement and a confidence that was palpable.  It was easy to tell that his career was on the cusp of a re-awakening.  The “new” Dan Wheldon that emerged after his marriage to wife Susie and birth of his sons Sebastian and Oliver understood now that life was much greater than just racing, but he still put the title of Indianapolis 500 champion as a close third in priority behind father and husband.  And a true champion he was…

Days like today make many of us question why we love this sport and follow it faithfully knowing full well what lurks in every corner.  In the end, we love it because it is in our blood.  We love our heroes who understand the risks and face them head-on.  Dan was certainly one who did not back down from those risks.  At some point, our shock and sadness will turn to anger and dozens of questions will arise.  We will wonder how this happened and how it could have been prevented.  I know that no tragedy is an isolated moment in time but instead the result of a thousand unforeseen occurrances that all had to line up just right to put Dan in that space at that time.  The saying When it’s your time, it’s your time is too often overused, but it is truly fitting. When the Almighty Creator calls us Home, we must accept that our path is not for our chosing but that of a Higher Will.  I can’t help but smile knowing that when our friend Michael Wanser soon arrives at the Pearly Gates, he’ll have a familiar face now to welcome him Home.

As I began to think last night about how to sum up the events of the day, I kept thinking back to the tragic events of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 that took the life of Dave MacDonald and fan-favorite Eddie Sachs, a man who loved the 500 as much as Dan Wheldon but was never able to achieve racing’s highest glory.  In the moments that followed the announcement of his passing, IMS Radio Network anchor Sid Collins delivered an impromptu eulogy for Sachs that became a seminal moment in radio history.  The words he spoke are as fitting today as they were in that tragic moment.  (The file below is the audio version of the Sachs eulogy from 1964, courtesy of the IMS Radio Network.)



And so we too must go on.  We will never forget Dan Wheldon.  He will always be remembered for his determination and prowess on the track as much as his charisma and character off the track.  He was a great champion, and a loving father and husband.  On behalf of all of us at More Front Wing, we send our prayers and deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Daniel Clive Wheldon.  May he forever rest in peace.