Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dan Wheldon - The Legend Lives On

 The echoes of the past speak to you every time you enter the gates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  It doesn’t have to be race day.  It doesn’t have to be any specific day at all.  When you walk through the gates, you are overwhelmed by the history and the pageantry of the greatest sporting event in the world.  You can smell the rubber, you can hear the cheers of the crowd, and you can sense that you are in the presence of greatness.  You are walking on hallowed ground, a place where legends are made, and the scope of it all is truly powerful and overwhelming. 

On this day however, the feeling is different.  The day is October 16, 2012.  Today in the brisk early morning fog, the Speedway sits quiet.  You cannot hear the crowd.  You cannot smell the rubber.  You cannot hear the grid piling through turn one.  The usually intimidating two and half mile oval appears small and calm.  There are no echoes today.  There is only silence.  For today the Speedway weeps for one of its all time greats.  One year ago today, in a devastating moment at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the world of auto-racing lost one of its greatest ambassadors.

As I sit in the parking lot starring at the short-chute, my mind wonders back to 2003, when I sat in these grandstands and watched a brash young Brit run with the leaders and push the limit for three hours only to end up on his top.  It was on that day, that I became a Dan Wheldon fan.  I remember watching this relatively unknown kid with a million dollar smile become immortal in 2005, winning his first Indy 500.    I am also reminded of May 2011, when one of our sports greatest drivers proved himself worthy of being an Indy Legend but defying the odds as a one off on a small team, and capturing his second Indy 500. 
Life is a fickle thing and one that is hard to figure out.  How does something like this happen? Why Dan?  Why now?  That is the hardest part of this story to me.  Dan was not just a race car driver; he was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend.  He left behind a young family and two beautiful sons.  I remember standing there in Tower Terrace Section 37, looking down into Victory Circle on that sunny day in May of 2011, watching this man celebrate an improbably victory with his family and those closest to him.  The emotion in his eyes and the smile on his face are somewhat overwhelming to remember. 

On this day however, as I sit in the presence of this historic place, I don’t mourn but smile.  What kind of man can silence the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this way?  What kind of man can tame the echoes and bring this place to its knees in silence and respect of his legacy?   That man is Dan Wheldon.  That man is one of Indy’s finest.  He will be remembered as a legend, the man with the million dollar smile (literally), the man who gave everything back to the sport he truly loved.  He was an ambassador, a true friend to every fan, and most importantly, he was a family man who understood his responsibility.    

Today we remember not only a legendary driver, but a legendary man.  I took some time to ask IndyCar Nation what Dan Wheldon meant to them?  Here are the responses from those who loved Dan:

“My best memory of Dan was at Milwaukee in 2009 when he was driving for Panther. I had pit passes and ran into him while he was going to his car. I asked him if I could have a quick picture with him, and he said he couldn’t and he would catch me later. I figured he was just blowing me off. About 45 or so minutes later, I saw him walking back to the trailer, and not wanting to be "that fan" that keeps bugging a driver, I figured I would stand there and let him be. Dan noticed me, walked way out of his was to come up to me and ask if I still wanted that picture.”

“DW went out of his way to connect with fans.”

“The things I miss about Dan most are his tenacity and his smile!”

“My experience was last year at Iowa. Dan was without a full-time ride and worked in the booth for Versus that night. Our seats were in Turn 4 and walking back along the midway I notice Dan walking toward me talking on his cell phone. As I approached him I said hi and congratulated him on his second Indy win and asked for a quick picture with him. He said sure and goes, honey hang on a bit I've got a fan that wants to take a picture with me."

“He became my sons hero when at the Richmond autograph session he looked at Franklin and said, you're the guy that always brings something cool for us to sign.”

“He always took time to speak with everyone in his line and he always stood up for every picture. He just understood what it all meant. To him, to the fans and to the sport itself. Plus, he loved IMS. Absolutely loved it.”

“To me he had just finally become "the face" of IndyCar. He had become my favorite driver and it was all about the Indy 500 and Dan's mastery at the Brickyard.”

“He seemed to love life, love people and always had fun. But when it came to the Indy 500, he was very serious and determined and quickly moving up the list of all-time greats at Indy.”

“He made racing fun and was an incredibly under-rated talent.”

He loved racing, he loved Indy, he loved the fans. He got it.”

“His smile and enthusiasm were infectious.”

“It's like he appreciated every second of life and took time to appreciate whatever opportunity he got. He loved life, loved Indy, and was just all around a great person.”

“Showing up at the Burger Bash before his second 500 win. The fact that he was there because he asked to be there and not because he was asked says it all.”

“Dan made racing fun. His passion and love for life and the sport drew me in even deeper. Race day just isn't the same without him.”

“Going to Goodwood Festival of speed this year felt different. Like something was missing. The two spots where I meet Dan the Previous year, I felt cold and emotional but felt kind of relieved in a way. They were the spots that I meet my idol and for that will remember those spots at Goodwood every year I go, and will go out of my way just to stand on them spots again.”

“One handed donuts...the joy of victory radiating through his actions, waving at the crowd while tire smoke boiled around the car.”

“Dan had a reverence and humility toward Indy that I perceived was truly genuine. I know most drivers do feel a certain amount of awe about the race/history, etc, but to me, it seemed like everything Dan did all year long was geared toward running and winning Indy. I feel like indy was a part of him and in his heart.”

“He was a great ambassador for the sport, and was genuinely interested in helping to grow it, primarily through his racing.”

“Dan was just one of us who happened to be really good at driving race cars. Someone who was probably real easy to get to know.”

“I've never seen any other drive engage so fully with fans - just watching him with kids & adults both at Indy, he would go a long way to make sure everyone got a picture or autograph. And he was one of the few drivers who appreciated Indy, the history and the heritage. I love that I never heard about him being rumored to be going to Nascar; he wanted to be an IndyCar driver. He was a fantastic representative of our sport - the complete package of skill, passion, and PR savvy.”

“Great driver. Great champion.”

“Dan seemed to "get it" by spending that extra fine minutes with the fans.”

“Dan took the time to interact with his fans and he truly loved the Indianapolis 500, his family, his friends, and life in general, I think everyone can agree to that.”

“As a fan, you realized he loved the sport and everything about it, which made you root for him that much more. I have never seen a more gracious winner than he was at Indy in 2011, and have never seen someone want a win more than he did.”

“His love for Indy and it's fans was truly special to watch. He had a feel for Indy that only a few before him ever had. I wish he were in the #27 this year, it would have been fun to see how he did.”

“I always liked Dan. I liked how he came up through the field to win his first Indy 500 and pulled for him to win the Championship that year. However I've always wondered if He blew off Andretti to race for Ganassi the next year.”

“They say you can hear someone's smile when you talk to them on the phone. I think you could hear Dan's smile through the telecast when he was in the booth. Little did we know we would have the luxury his presence in the booth for those few races.”

“It was very obvious that Dan Wheldon loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 with a great passion. I loved this about him. I loved his personality. I loved his smile. He was, "one of us" and I will miss him till I am gone.”

“Dan loved the open wheelers. He loved Indy, especially in May. He "got it" with the fans, more than I ever seen in this sport or any other. To me, Dan wasn't just a driver, but an ambassador for IndyCar. And that is what I miss about him the most.”

“I met Dan when he was a part-time driver for Panther racing. He was a nice guy then... and remained so throughout.”

“Dan made his home here in Pinellas County FL, he was a local celebrity, but never acted like it. This area is home to many Hoosiers and having Danny as a local was a big thrill for all of us. After his first win, I thought, this kid is really going to take off."

“Dan was exactly what the sport of IndyCar racing needed.”

“Dan has always been one of my favorite drivers. He actually was the first driver I ever got my picture taken with when I met him at my first race in Nashville in 2005. To me he was the face of the IndyCar and the Indy 500.”

“I got the chance to meet him quite a few times and, coming from Switzerland, I cannot attend more than 2 races a year, so everytime I attended a race, he was one of the drivers I needed to see.”

“My biggest memory of him was at last year's Indy 500 when I got the chance to attend the Banquet and while waiting next to him, he looked at me, remembered me from the Saturday's autograph session and gave me a hug, he was just so excited to have won the 500 a second time!”

“Dan was a good driver and a great Indianapolis driver, I liken him in many ways to another driver taken at, arguably, the zenith of his career - Bill Vukovich.”

“Dan was the type of person that you could say two words to and he could make you feel like you had known him your whole life.”

“I and two close friends flew to Vegas to see the last race of the season. I had seen Dan earlier in the day doing a live Q&A in the fan village with Dario and Power. I was shocked to see how well he conducted himself in front of the crowd. You could see that he was a new man, someone who had won Indy twice, had matured with a new family and was ready to take that next step. We walked the strip in Vegas that afternoon and happened to stop in to the MGM Grand. I happened to notice a sign advertising an autograph session with several drivers. One of them was Dan! I knew this was my chance to finally be "that fan" and actually meet Dan. What happened next will stay with me forever.  We stood in line and after a short while made our way around the autograph tables. Sato, TK, and then Dan! As I waited for the two fans in front of me to finish a blond figure approached out of the corner of my eye. The fans in front left the table and I looked to my side to see Suzie and their son Sebastian. Dan sprung from behind the table and skipped towards the two saying "there's my boy". Sebastian laughed, smiled and raised his arms up to his daddy. Dan picked Sebastian up and sat him at the table as I approached. I got Dan's autograph and asked for a picture. Dan asked if I cared if Sebastian was in the picture. I told him I didn’t mind at all. I have a son at home and knew in the back of my mind how important it had to be for Dan and Sebastian to be together. Then it hit me, he was a true family man. He wasn’t just some flashy race car driver that had won Indy twice. He had a family just like me and appeared to love them deeply. The connection I felt with him at that point went far beyond anything I could have imagined. After my friend snapped a picture (with Sebastian in it) all I could think about was how much he loved his family. It added a whole new level of respect and admiration for me.”

“I've met a good number of drivers since I started following racing, but it sure does seem like I really missed out by never having had the pleasure of meeting Wheldon.”

“He gave me one of the biggest thrills of my sports-watching life.”

“One common thread I've constantly heard, whether from fans, drivers, or news media is that Dan had the ability to make someone, who may have only had a second to interact with him, feel like they've known him forever, that they're a friend and not just a fan.”

“I went into Watkin's Glen pretty much a fan of Marco Andretti's with a liking for many other drivers, I left a huge fan of and with tons of respect for, Dan Wheldon.”

“I think as fans we not only lost a fantastic competitor who had a true love for the sport, but we lost it's best and brightest spokesman. Dan was in a class of his own with the fans and sponsors and his love for Indy was infectious. He had such a bright future ahead of him, his deal with Andretti for this year set to go and the knowledge that when he decided he wanted to retire, he had a spot in the booth waiting for him.”

“Honestly now I think the reason I'm not as interested in IndyCar racing as I used to be is because he isn't in the driver line-up for each race now, I don't have my favorite driver anymore and there isn't a day where I'm not thinking about him and imagining him racing still.”

“Rest in Peace Danny Boy, I wish you still here to give me more great memories of IndyCar.”

“Dan was Personable, Loved Indy, and made you feel like you were #1.”

“My son and I had witness Dan stay an hour after all the other drivers had left the 1 hour mandatory autograph signing to make sure everyone in line would get a autograph. My son asked him if we could get him and my son in a picture. Dan, not only enthusiastically agreed, but wanted me in the photo as well and asked his publicist to take the picture.”

“Being a Indy 500 fan for over 25 years, I have never allowed myself to really pick a favorite driver, I liked and respected all the IndyCar drivers and never really rooted against any. With Dan it was different. After years of always warmly greeting my son at various driver appearances, I feel head over heels in awe of Dan. It helped that he revered the IMS as much as I did. He was such as awesome ambassador of the sport and speedway, besides the family factor, the greatest loss is we are deprived of one of the most talented drivers to turn a wheel at the speedway.”

“Wheldon meant being a racer and always a good choice for victory.”

“His humor and grace to were unrivaled.”

I zip up my jacket and walk back to my car.  The power of this place will return tomorrow, and there will be a new echo to hear - One of legendary Indy 500 Champion, Daniel Clive Wheldon.


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