I hope you won’t mind that I don’t write about the racing at Las Vegas. There isn’t much to say about 12 laps that don’t even count. With the cancellation of this race, the season effectively ended at Kentucky in regards to points and championship races. Instead, I’ll share thoughts on the untimely loss of Dan Wheldon, and some poignantly beautiful things I saw and experienced at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Dan Wheldon was dazzling – from his smile to his fashionable appearance, from his charm to his championship-level talent, he sparkled. This season, we were all witness to the changing of the tides for Dan. None of us could understand how such a great driver and sponsor’s dream didn’t have a full-time ride this year – his only deal was to race the 500. And that race was a thrilling, last-corner grab of the win, with a small team run by one of his best friends and former team mate, Bryan Herta. Dan Wheldon was on top of the world, drinking that beloved milk for a second time in Indy’s Victory Lane.
He was just getting started. It was announced that Herta, with Dan as the driver, would be the test team for the 2012 car. That experience was going to make him very valuable to a team (Herta’s or another) next season and things were looking up for Dan’s 2012 prospects. In the downtime between the 500 win and the start of testing, Dan was asked to fill in for Wally Dallenbach, Jr. as Versus’ driver analyst during broadcasts. Dallenbach had NASCAR announcing duties to fulfill and Dan was available and a hot topic at the time. It was perfect. He was a natural, bringing current insight about the cars, the drivers and their tendencies, and a nice dose of verve to the broadcast. Accolades poured in, with viewers urging Versus to make Dan a permanent part of their team. It was clear that he would have an announcing job waiting for him whenever he wanted to hang up his helmet.
During the summer, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard was talking up his big challenge for this last race of the season. Drivers from all racing series were invited to participate and if they could manage a win, they’d get $5 million dollars. Injuries and other roadblocks prevented anyone from participating, but Bernard doesn’t give up without a fight – he teamed with GoDaddy to offer the challenge to Dan. Start at the back, win the race and split the $5 million with a fan.
Coming into Vegas, the mood was definitely up. People were expecting an exciting race and loads of fun events in the entertainment capital of the world. There was nervous excitement about the turnout for this first race back at LVMS, and hopes for a higher TV rating to cap off a season that saw slow but steady improvements in that area. In the midst of all the fans and the buzz, Dan was in his element. He hosted an interview via Ortsbo at the fan appreciation event, taking questions online from around the world and putting them to both Dario Franchitti and Will Power. The event was on the IndyCar stage in front of a nice crowd, and Dan came on first to give a 2-3 minute introduction. The intro was scripted – it was a nice marketing push for Ortsbo – but he had no teleprompter, no paper script. It flowed out like it was as easy as breathing for him. In addition to the interview questions, Dan occasionally came into the crowd to speak with folks such as Randy Bernard. I was transfixed – just blown away by the vibrant energy and complete professionalism of the job he did. One question for Dan himself was about his reported deal with Andretti Autosport to replace Danica – he was charming but evasive, but we all knew it had to be true. My brain was filled with the possibilities Dan had in front of him – multi-year, full-time ride, fully-engaged sponsor in GoDaddy, and a long, successful broadcasting career when he retired. I imagined just how big a star he could become via exposure GoDaddy would bring, and hoped that would happen quickly – it’s just what INDYCAR needs right now.
Flash forward to just over 24 hours later, and he was gone. A dazzling, talented champion who was about to embark on a promising new phase of his career, with a potential to help raise INDYCAR’s profile. The sport desperately needed to take advantage of his talents and appeal. It’s a huge loss.
But, all of the above means nothing, in the big picture view. Yesterday, someone lost a husband, a daddy, a son, a brother, a beloved friend/competitor/teammate. The depth of this loss on a human level was evident all around the garages, the pits and in the media center. Gasps and open weeping filled the media center when Randy Bernard made the announcement that Dan didn’t survive. Strangers hugging strangers, a silver-haired Firestone employee wiping his eyes as he slowly walked down pit lane, a silence that was hard to imagine in a place with so many people and loud machines. The rest of the day, people took time out from whatever their duties were to check on each other and share memories. One of the images that is stuck in my head is from the press appearance by Chip Ganassi and Dario Franchitti. The press conferences took place inside the media deadline room. My desk was near the podium, next to photographer Anne Proffitt’s desk. Anne is hearing impaired and has a sweet chihuahua (Leah) as her hearing assistant. As Chip and Dario were remembering Dan, Dario’s wife, Ashley Judd, sat on the floor next to Leah’s dog bed and picked her up. Leah cuddled with the tearful Ashley and licked her chin and cheeks to administer a little bit of puppy therapy to someone who really needed it. Leah was a source of comfort for a lot of us as we all tried to hold each other up. In the midst of such tragedy, it was touching and beautiful to see so many people come to the aid of others.
The outpouring of grief online has been overwhelming to keep up with, but also another source of comfort for many. Tributes of flowers, notes, candles and other items are piling up at Gate 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and people are tweeting, texting and calling each other to check up on fellow fans and participants. The reaction as a whole is the most touching tribute of all to the dazzling Dan Wheldon – that his passing has impacted this many people to such a deep degree is the real expression of what he meant to the INDYCAR community at large.
He clearly meant the world.
Rest in peace, Daniel Clive Wheldon.