It’s time to let Dan go

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on May 29, 2012 2:55 pm

On a day when many race fans finally got their opportunity to remember and pay respects to the late Dan Wheldon, it was fitting that the top three finishers were three of Wheldon’s closest friends.  The winner, Dario Franchitti, and third-place finisher Tony Kanaan were teammates of Wheldon’s, along with 2011 Indianapolis 500 winning car owner Bryan Herta, when the quartet made up the Andretti Green Racing team in 2004 and 2005.  Second-place finisher Scott Dixon was a three-year teammate of Wheldon’s when Dan joined Target Chip Ganassi Racing following the 2005 season.  Each had cherished memories of Dan, and each wanted his face to be the one to live on eternally next to Dan’s on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

But as the Month of May has now come and gone and we turn our attention to the remainder of the IZOD IndyCar Series season, the time has come for INDYCAR as a whole to begin to move past the haunting memory of Dan Wheldon’s passing.

We all grieve in different ways and at different speeds, so I don’t mean to suggest in any way that fans and friends of Dan Wheldon need to just “get over it.”  However, now that we are more than seven months removed from his death, INDYCAR and its drivers, teams, events, and tracks have done just about all that can be done to memorialize Wheldon without being tacky, opportunistic, or exploitative.

After the public memorial service held for Wheldon in Indianapolis last October, official recognition of Dan took place at the season’s opening event on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida — only blocks from the house than Dan and Susie and their two beautiful children called home — with the renaming of a portion of the track to “Dan Wheldon Way.”  That race marked the debut of the new INDYCAR chassis that Dan influenced and that carries his initials.

At Indianapolis, where Wheldon scored his final victory in dramatic fashion, tributes were tastefully done throughout the month.  His image adorned the ticket for the event (an Indianapolis tradition dating back many decades), his personal logo was mown into the infield grass just north of turn 2, his winning car was driven on a ceremonial pre-race lap of honor, fans were given replicas of his trade-mark white sunglasses upon entering the grounds, and IMS produced a poignant and touching video montage of Dan’s career highlights that preceded Taps in the opening ceremonies.

All of the tributes to the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion have been fitting and appropriately well done.   They have honored his life, his achievements, and his memory without becoming sensationalistic as many tributes to fallen heroes have tended to do.  They have, we all hope, brought a sense of peace and comfort to those who still mourn his absence.

But Dan wouldn’t want us to continue endlessly grieving for him.  It wasn’t his nature.  To memorialize Dan at each and every opportunity only serves to delay the healing process and keep those who still mourn him from being able to get on with their lives.

We’ve spent enough time in the past.  Now, it’s time to move forward.

Though the formal tributes to Dan Wheldon should come to an end, there is a way for INDYCAR to remember Dan in perpetuity:  by conferring an annual award to the driver who best displays Dan’s enthusiastic love for fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series and his ability to connect with them and make each one feel special.  The Dan Wheldon Outreach Award (or something similar) should not be a fan-voted popularity contest but rather selected by a committee of individuals who can assess each driver’s impact on the fan base without bias and reward the one who goes above and beyond the call of duty to make fans feel special.  Dan was certainly one-of-a-kind when it came to interacting with fans, but other drivers should be recognized for their efforts as well.  Putting Dan’s name on such an award would be the perfect way to honor his legacy for years to come.

Aside from an enduring tribute such as this, though, it’s time for the INDYCAR Nation as a whole to move on from Dan’s passing. We’ve all had many chances to remember him and honor his memory, and he will forever live on in our hearts and minds.  Certainly, we all should cherish our memories of his life and his career, and we should continue to keep Susie, Oliver, and Sebastian in our prayers as they continue to adjust to life without their patriarch.

The show must go on, and it continues to go on. And now, it’s time to find a way to let it go on while letting Dan Wheldon go.