Reflecting on Wheldon’s passing

This is a column I wish I didn’t have to write, and hope I will never have to write again.
But sadly, given the events of this past weekend, I have to.
On Sunday afternoon, 33-year-old Dan Wheldon, who had won the IndyCar Series championship in 2005 and captured the Indianapolis 500 in both 2005 and again earlier this year, succumbed to injuries he suffered in a hellacious 15-car pileup at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, sending the racing world into mourning.
There will be discussions about how and why this happened, and what can be done to make the tracks and the cars safer for the drivers, but now is not really the time or place for that.
Instead, it’s a time to pause, reflect, and remember one of the finest open-wheel talents of the past decade, which is something I’ll attempt to do.
Having been a racing fan for as long as I can remember, I unfortunately never got a chance to meet Dan in person. And I only got the opportunity to watch him race live once in Milwaukee back in 2005, but I had watched him from afar over the years during his rising career.
My first memory of him was, oddly enough, through an accident. He had a wild upside-down crash that he walked away from in the 2003 Indianapolis 500, which was his first full season in IndyCar.
But in actuality, Wheldon originally had made his name in the open-wheel circuits of England, where he had a rivalry with fellow countryman and 2009 Formula One champion, Jenson Button. But when the funding dried up to continue towards the pinnacle of European motorsports, Wheldon moved abroad to try his hand at American open-wheel racing.
It didn’t take long for Wheldon to become one of the top drivers in IndyCar. He won the rookie-of-the-year award in 2003, won his first race a year later, and then captured both the series championship and the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.
However, Wheldon’s win was overshadowed by the performance by the driver he passed in the late stages of the race, Danica Patrick, with the ensuing media frenzy over her run leading Wheldon to wear a shirt to the next event on the series that read “Actually ‘Won’ the Indy 500.”
That wouldn’t be the last time he and Danica crossed paths, though, as the two got into a pushing-and-showing match of sorts following a tangle in a race in 2007 at Milwaukee, to which Wheldon had a mischievous grin about him with all of the media hubbub afterwards.
On the track, however, Wheldon still was having solid runs in the IndyCar Series, and had finished second in the Indy 500 in both 2009 and 2010. But he found himself without a full-time ride when this season began.
In fact, the only ride he did have lined up was a one-off shot for the Indianapolis 500, where in miraculous fashion, he took the lead and the win on the last lap when JR Hildebrand, driving the car Wheldon previously had driven a year earlier, hit the wall coming off of the final corner.
Despite winning the crown jewel of the sport for a second time, Wheldon again was on the sidelines without a full-time ride despite his vast amounts of talent—something that’s become increasingly commonplace in racing today.
Nevertheless, Wheldon was keeping himself rather busy as he spread his talents to the broadcast booth, working as an announcer on IndyCar television broadcasts, and also was working with the series on developing a new race car for the 2012 season.
In fact, just hours prior to Sunday’s race in Las Vegas, Wheldon had locked up a multi-year deal to have a full-time drive once again, where he would be replacing Danica.
Sadly, he will not have that opportunity.
It’s been a couple of days now since the accident occurred, and personally speaking, I’m still extremely messed up emotionally about it, especially with the five-lap salute Wheldon’s fellow competitors gave him mere minutes after his death was announced.
To someone who doesn’t follow racing, it might seem odd why people are grieving over the loss of someone that they had never actually met face-to-face, or had seen drive in person. But when you watch them on television or read about them in the press, you feel like you know them in a sense.
Anytime Wheldon was interviewed, he had this sense of charm about him, where he was always smiling and always ready to have a quick, dry jab at his competitors or those interviewing him.
Described by many as being brash and cocky when he first came onto the scene, Wheldon quickly had become one of the most respected and popular drivers, not only in the grandstands but in the IndyCar garage, as well, something to which the Englishman felt came from his wife and two young children.
While auto racing is inherently dangerous, the deaths that used to be an almost weekly occurrence in the 1960s and ’70s have become increasingly rare over the years as the sport has become safer, which makes events like what happened on Sunday all the more shocking.
Racing will continue on, though, just like it did when the larger-than-life figures such as Dale Earnhardt and Ayrton Senna lost their lives in accidents.
The drivers will strap themselves into their cars yet again and the fans will cheer them on in the grandstands and in their homes, for that is what the drivers do for a living and what the fans love to watch—even after the numbing feeling of shock of what happened Sunday.
Moving on from this is going to be extremely difficult for everyone involved in motorsports, and I’m personally having a tough time in doing so at the moment. But there is one small point of comfort I find myself repeatedly coming back to.
I’m not a massively religious person in any sense, but I do believe in an afterlife, and all I can think of now is that Dan is racing up there with the open-wheel drivers we have lost too soon. And that, along with the memories I have of his achievements over the years, makes me happy.
Godspeed Dan Wheldon.

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