“It’s Wheldon! Dan Wheldon has won the Centennial Indy 500!” Came the call. I jumped up and down in excitement, arms raised, ecstatic that my favourite driver had won, but still stunned at the dramatic final moments. Wheldon had only led the race for 100 yards, but he’d crossed the line first with Hildebrand’s wounded Panther car limping over the line in second. Unbelievable!
Just 140 days after that moment, as I sat watching the aftermath of that crash in Las Vegas, I knew he was gone.
Long before the looks on the faces of the broadcasters and the drivers they interviewed could betray that Dan had lost his life, I just knew.
I’ve been watching motor sports for long enough to know when an accident is a bad one, even if it doesn’t look too severe to the casual observer – and even the casual fan could see immediately that the crash involving 15 cars at Las Vegas speedway was a devastating one.
There’s something about the way that the TV coverage changes in the time after a bad accident. Everything from the long, ponderous shots, to the vague filler material the announcers use to pad the time between the crash until the time when an official announcement is made, it’s the subtle things that telegraph there’s bad news coming.
In fact, when Thomas Scheckter said on Twitter that he had left the track, I had all the confirmation I needed that my favourite driver had been killed.
I could see it in Michael Andretti’s face when he was interviewed close to an hour after the accident. He knew it, the guy interviewing him knew it, the announcers knew it, and I think every fan that was watching knew that the announcement that came was going to be the grim news that Dan was gone.
What made it so surreal was that all the hallmarks of a tragedy unfolding were there to be seen. That Dan was only doing the race as a publicity stunt to help promote the season finale, that he’d just signed a contract to return to the team that he won his first Indy 500 and championship with, that he and his wife Suzie had had their fore-arms tattooed with each other’s initials the night before the race, that this was the fastest, most dangerous track on the calendar with more cars starting than even the Indy 500 itself.
If you wanted to write a tragic story about the untimely death of a likeable racing driver in his prime, you were spoiled for choice with the feel-good-to-tragedy story lines on offer.
My own personal aspect was that I’d loved Dan Wheldon as a person and a driver from the moment I began watching the IndyCar Series regularly back in 2004. He was runner up to his friend Tony Kanaan in the championship that year, before winning the Indy 500 and the championship in 2005. His endless enthusiasm for promoting the sport and going the extra mile for each and every fan was just so endearing.
When I made the trip to Indianapolis for the Centennial Indy 500 I wanted to shake his hand and get his autograph, but as a fan in his late 30’s I didn’t allow myself the guilty pleasure of seeking him out and doing that. What I did do was cheer the moment he crossed the line to win the race and applaud his victory laps with unashamed joy. If ever there was a driver I wanted to see win the greatest spectacle in racing, it was Dan Wheldon. I’ll never forget that day or how happy I was for Dan at winning the race he so loved.
Yet just four and half months later, before me on the screen that night, Danica Patrick was crying openly in the paddock while the announcers spoke in hushed tones. Danica and Dan had not been particularly close, having exchanged harsh words a few years before after a clash of wheels had sent her spinning at Milwaukee when she had the car to win on the day. And now, for reasons that seemed too harrowing to contemplate, Danica Patrick, who had justifiably earned her reputation as being a tough as nails woman in a sport dominated by men, was weeping under a canopy in the paddock at Las Vegas.
Even the most optimistic fan would have known deep down that she wasn’t crying in public because the final race of her IndyCar career had been red flagged after eleven laps. Danica knew the father of two young boys had been killed, that their mother had lost her husband, and that the driver signed to replace her in the GoDaddy car next season had lost his life. It could have been her. It could have been any one of the drivers who started the race that day.
The official announcement finally came in the form of a shell-shocked Randy Bernard, the CEO of IndyCar, telling us that Dan had died and that there would be a 5 lap salute made by the drivers whose cars were still able to run. I watched those five laps with the biggest lump in my throat.
I took an age to get to sleep that night as the accident and its implications played in my mind, then woke the next morning hoping it had all been a horrible dream. That pattern would repeat itself over the course of the days and weeks that followed. I wanted to write about it to get it out of my system, but each time I thought about putting this post together I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Instead I took part in the frantic debate on Track Forum as the fan base tried to come to terms with what had happened. Some people were adamant that there should be no change to the way the sport operates, that death had always been a part of it. I sided with sweeping change, for an end to the open cockpit designs, and for the speeds to be brought down.
In my mind it was, and still is, pretty clear that IndyCar racing is entertainment and that death should never be a by-product of that. The drivers who race in the series aren’t pushing the boundaries of engineering or technology for mankind. They aren’t doing anything so noble. They’re racing aerodynamically flawed advertising billboards for entertainment purposes, nothing more.
That such a fantastic individual should die doing something that he loved was scant consolation for the void he left behind. And, for a couple of months, I didn’t even think I could bring myself to watch the races in 2012.
However, as the shock subsided, I found the desire to see what the future would bring for the sport. In a way, it’s fitting that the cars will be different in 2012, with the old chassis being replaced by a new car that Dan had played a big part in developing. It’s a new chapter for IndyCar and a new chapter for me as a fan.
This week the news came that Canadian, James Hinchcliffe, has been signed to drive the GoDaddy car that Dan would have been driving this year. He’s a likeable, positive guy with a great personality in the same mould as Dan Wheldon. I’d cheered on Hinch’ all through the 2011 season as he won the Rookie of the Year title.
“I’m going to think about him every time I get in that car. There’s no doubt that a part of me will be driving for Dan this year.” Hinchcliffe said in a USA Today article.
I’m going to be thinking of Dan a whole lot in 2012, too – especially when the Indy 500 comes around in May. Dan knew how special the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, and his victory there in 2011 only adds to the lustre in the history of the event.
I’m so glad I was there to see the final victory of his career in person.
Thanks for the memories, Dan.