One year ago on October 16, 2011, the IZOD Indycar Series community and the world lost a great driver as well as a great friend in Dan Wheldon. Dan touched many people and was very unique, whether it being his extensive shoe collection or his tenacious ability behind the wheel of a race or going out of his way for his fans. His loss has left a void that can never be replaced.
Dan went out of his way for his fans. He was never too busy to interact with the fans during race weekends, and he was always cordial towards them and asked them how they were doing, something that not all drivers do. I witnessed this firsthand when I met Dan at Nashville Superspeedway at his souvenir trailer. He was talking to everybody in line as if they were one of his close friends and did not mind posing for that extra snapshot. Heck, he didn't even mind signing my Scott Dixon hat. If he did not have time for them right away, he would make sure that he would get back to them to make them happy.
One thing that is difficult to swallow about his death is that he was making a comeback and the best was yet to come of him. Dan's career was at a standstill after he lost his ride with Panther Racing at the end of the 2010 season. He signed a one race deal with Bryan Herta Autosport to run the Indianapolis 500. He said early on that he felt that he could win the race, a pretty bold statement for someone who signed with a new team with no testing time or anything to that effect. On the last lap of the race, JR Hildebrand was walking away with the race and it looked as if the rookie would wind up the winner, but fate turned its ugly head and Hildebrand smacked the wall coming off the final corner. Wheldon was running a few seconds behind and passed Hildebrand's damaged car and just like that he was a 2 time winner of the greatest race in the world. You could tell by his emotion in victory lane that this win meant so much to him, not only for his career as a race car driver, but for his life. When he won his first Indianapolis 500, he was a young cocky hotshot coming up thru the ranks. This time around, he was a few years older, married and had a family, which will give you a different outlook on life and you could see that in him. One of the iconic moments of the weekend was him kissing the famed bricks with his son, Sebastian. On race morning at Las Vegas, he signed with Andretti Autosport to replace Danica Patrick, the team where he won his first Indianapolis 500 and championship. Had he have lived he would have been a force to be reckoned with in Indycar and he would have gone on to win many more Indianapolis 500s and championships and races. One can only wonder what if...
Looking back on his 2nd Indianapolis 500 win, it could not have been written any better. Dan felt that he could win the race but the chances of a part time single car team with a that is not affiliated with the big 3 (Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti) winning the Indianapolis 500 were not in his favor. At the end of the day, here is Dan sitting in victory lane driving for his old buddy and teammate Bryan Herta. Seeing his emotional post race interview, him kissing his wife Susie, holding his little boys in his arms, and kissing the bricks, Hollywood couldn't have made a better story. Another thing, the car that he passed for the win, the #4 National Guard Panther Racing car driven by JR Hildebrand, that was his former team that he was let go from at the end of the previous season. He could have been in their face for beating them this go around, but he never even mentioned it.
His death affected me in several ways. He was my favorite driver and a personal hero of mine because of his ability behind the wheel of a race car and how he made it to the top of his game all on his own. I have never felt as emotional when someone has passed away that has not been in my immediate family as I did when Dan passed. When I found my autographed hat that he signed, I broke down like a baby, that is how much it hurt. Even though I did not know Dan personally, losing someone who meant that much to me hurt very much and changed my life forever. Two things that I learned through his death were for one racing will never be completely safe and most importantly life is a precious thing and should never be taken for granted. One minute we are here, and the next minute we may not be.
Dan may be gone, but his legacy lives on and he will never be forgotten. As Fats Brown said in the Twilight Zone episode A Game of Pool, "As long as they talk about you, you're not really dead, as long as they speak your name, you continue. A legend doesn't die, just because the man dies." In 33 years of life on this earth he accomplished more than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Not just what he did on the racetrack, but as a husband, a father and a friend. He enjoyed every minute of his life and he died doing what he loved: driving a race car at 220+ MPH.