The phone rang exactly an hour late. But still quite punctual at the point of the half-hour. West coast time versus east coast time, and all that. I already knew he could talk almost as fast as he could drive, so I was prepared, and a bit nervous that I might be able to type as fast as the words would flow.
At the other was the bright, chipper and unmistakable voice of two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar series champion Dan Wheldon. His accent was always tough to place. The 33-year-old hailed from Emberton, UK, a small town outside of Milton Keynes, but there was always the slightest hint of Irish brogue tucked behind the English accent. Perhaps it had skipped forth a generation.
"Hello, it's Dan...Dan Wheldon," he said in that distinctive lilt. "Is this Karl, then? Nice to talk to you... shall we get on with it?"
Having spoken to Dan before, I had prepared a series of questions that I hoped would lead him in a direction he would enjoy -- a season recap, some items about the new Dallara IndyCar that he had been test piloting over the previous month, and the big IndyCar World Championships scheduled for the upcoming weekend in which he would try to win an unprecedented $5 million dollar prize.
A driver never knows if the person at the other end of the media call has any experience in racing, or if he is going to have to start from scratch explaining the nuances between IndyCar and NASCAR to someone whose knowledge does not extend beyond stick and ball sports. He was prepared either way, but seemed to relax a bit when my questions conveyed that I already had the necessary background info and understanding.
The "interview" as such, took on more the tone of a conversation.
As much as I struggled to keep up and process his answers mentally while typing furiously, Dan continued talking. He could rattle off the name of every personal sponsor, every team sponsor, every company contributing to the building of the new Dallara IndyCar in a slick and polished, but genuine, unrehearsed manner. It was fascinating, and, as a journalist, somewhat maddening to keep in line.
The start and stop nature of his own season was one topic. Having parted with Panther Racing in the off-season, Wheldon found himself scrambling for a car without a full-time ride. He signed with tiny Bryan Herta Autosport for the Indy 500, a team that had struggled mightily to qualify for the 33-car field the previous year. He then went out and won the race in dramatic fashion, nipping the damaged car of his Panther replacement J.R. Hildebrand just before the finish line in one of the most fantastic and surreal finishes of Indy 500 history.
"I think through all of this it's given me a different perspective and understanding for (how it all) comes together. I've been involved in all the different aspects, the production and the commentary has given me an appreciation for what all these people do...it has made me a better person," Wheldon said. "Indy was fantastic, the commentary was great, driving a 2012 car was (exciting.) But I think the competitive aspect is what I missed. You put everything aside and just appreciate driving the car."
Wheldon was excited about the chance to run for the $5 million GoDaddy Challenge prize, which had been designed around his participation and his media savvy. Even though he would be handicapped by starting at the back of the modern-era IndyCar record 34-car field, nobody knew their way around a 1.5 oval like Las Vegas Motor Speedway better.
He had nine wins on the 1.5-mile super speedways, including three at Homestead Miami Speedway and two at Chicagoland Speedway. He had a championship and 16 IndyCar wins already under his belt and was still poised for another five to seven years in the prime of his career.
Off the track, Wheldon was also negotiating a return to Andretti Autosport, where he had won the series championship in 2005. The prodigal was returning not as the flash, cocky young driver, but a thoughtful veteran who had figured out that competition is what he needed the most.
He did not need to be in any car, he needed to be in a competitive car, capable of running up front with his friends and former teammates Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. He always made the respect for his fellow drivers plain and complimented them freely, not begrudging in the least. He realized that he was no longer the young lion, but had adapted to the role of pied piper at the go-kart track where he trained, surrounded by kids with similar asphalt dreams.
Wheldon had also started a family of his own. He married his personal assistant Susie and newborn Oliver had joined older son Sebastian (2) in March. It was a source of pride for him, once among the most desirable bachelors in racing, to have settled down.
"Maybe if I was young like Rahal and Marco Andretti, and myself back in the day," Wheldon had said after his second consecutive second-place finish at the 2010 Indy 500. "I would have totally ignored (his engineer) and tried to run Dario down."
In that respect, the 2011 Indy 500 win, as improbable as it was, signified his own rebirth. He had taken the upstart Herta team and willed it to victory off the track as much as he wheeled it to victory on the track. He appreciated every ounce of effort given by his crew, every sacrifice they made to work on his car and not spend time with their own families.
"They were there every day through all of the rainouts and delays, rubbing on that car to make it faster," Wheldon said.
The quotes flowed like pints and before I knew it, we had already spent 15 minutes on the phone. He was just getting warmed up. I thanked Dan for his time, and that I appreciated his answers. He asked if I had everything that I needed and began to bid me goodbye.
"Oh, and Dan, good luck on Sunday."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
And he did appreciate it.
He appreciated everyone who covered the sport, he appreciated those who spread the gospel of IndyCar speed. And the fans, he really appreciated the fans most of all.
Racing is a sport that defies categorization. It is not easy to understand. It deals out the highest highs and calls in the markers in the cruelest possible way.
When I think about that conversation last week, and some of the others that I had with Dan through the years, I think of the way in which he had learned to give himself so unselfishly to the sport he loved.
And now, I must also think of the way the sport selfishly took him from his family, friends and all of us who enjoy racing.
I wish I could give him back those 15 minutes to play with his kids. Or tell his wife that he loves her. Because he did.