Originally published Oct. 17, 2011.
My iPhone lit up last Tuesday.
Jet-lagged after a 23.5-hour door-to-door flight back from covering the Bathurst 1000 race in Australia, and in my usual morning stupor, I looked over and saw the name “Dan Wheldon” pop up on the display.
“Hey, is this the famous international motorsports reporter?” he asked.
Filled with pride for what I perceived was Wheldon’s recognition of my work Down Under, I started to reply, “Thanks, Danny Boy, I…” before he interrupted.
“Wait a minute…who is this?” he said.
I replied, “It’s Marshall.”
“Oh, my bad,” Wheldon said, “I was trying to call Robin Miller…hahahahahahaha…”
After a good thirty seconds of laughing at me (“I got you to bite on that one pretty good, mate…”), Wheldon–thoroughly pleased with himself for executing a perfect bait-and-switch–fell into the familiar tone and tenor of a man whose life had taken a sharp turn for the better.
He’d gone from being unemployed and on the sidelines of the sport a year ago to unexpected Indy 500 winner, to INDYCAR’s official test driver for the new 2012 car, to Danica Patrick’s replacement at Andretti Autosport, to the man vying for $2.5 million last weekend at Las Vegas.
At 33 years old, Wheldon was in the midst of an epic rebirth—reclaiming a career that had been derailed by two frustrating years at Panther Racing–and a poor showing the year before that at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
With the path recently cleared for another five to 10 years of IndyCar racing, Wheldon, the two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar Series champion, was on his way back to where he belonged.
The indescribable sadness that comes with his loss at Las Vegas, however, has nothing to do with the death of an athlete—a champion driver.
I don’t write very many ‘I’ pieces, but with a flight back to Australia just hours away for this weekend’s Gold Coast 600 event, and knowing that plenty of other writers will have the time to produce more polished and eloquent remembrances of Dan, I’ll do my best to put his death in whatever context I can under the circumstances.
- Like most in the sport, I’ve been affected by death at the race track and on more than one occasion. I’ve had a driver die in a car I prepared—he suffered a massive coronary. I’ve seen drivers killed in crashes directly in front of me. I’ve seen Indy car stars and future champions cut down in their prime. I’ve cleaned copious amounts of my driver’s blood off of the sidepod of an Indy car. And in all of those instances, I was saddened, shocked or stunned. But I never cried. The loss of those men, however tragic, was filtered and processed internally as the loss of athletes. It took getting away from the Las Vegas track on Sunday for the gravity of Dan’s death to hit home. Sitting at my gate in the McCarran International Airport, of all places, I started to cry in front of complete strangers. On the short flight home from Las Vegas to the Bay Area, the reason for my belated tears became obvious: losing Dan Wheldon–bon vivant, friend, character, jokester, beaming source of light and warmth—was the real tragedy. What the world of racing lost at Las Vegas pales in comparison to what world-at-large surrendered on Sunday.
- I clicked with Dan because he was what my father called ‘A lover of a person.’ Wheldon, especially once he got married and had children, breathed life into whatever he touched, described, or whomever he came in contact with. Compared to some of the dark and brooding types in the IndyCar paddock, Wheldon made no effort to hide the sheer joy and blessings that filled his life. He was a lover of what he had, what he did, and what was yet to come.
- I mourn for his wife, Susie, and sons, Oliver and Sebastien. I mourn for his family—most of whom were in attendance at Las Vegas to watch him run for the big payday.
- I want Wade Cunningham, who mistakenly triggered the crash, to know that no one with a sane mind or grasp of the sport blames him. Dan’s loss isn’t your fault, son. Don’t internalize this.
- I’m heartbroken for Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. They grew so incredibly close to Greg Moore—became inseparable, and lost him in similar circumstances at the season finale in 1999. More than a decade later, and after feeling the enduring sting of Greg’s death, Dario and TK are suffering through the same thing again with the loss of Dan, who had become a little brother to them–a new best friend that helped to fill the void left by Moore. Losing one’s best friend, on two occasions, and in violent crashes is a cruel, cruel twist.
- I applaud Randy Bernard for handling the announcement of Dan’s death personally, rather than passing it off to one of his PR staff.
- I’m saddened by the “I told you so” articles I’ve seen emerge within hours of Dan’s death.
- I’ll miss reminiscing with Dan about our days in the Toyota Atlantic series when he routinely kicked my driver’s ass and loved every minute of it. I hated him with a passion back then.
- I’m sorry for taking the Lord’s name in vain dozens of times since Sunday.
- I hate that anything like this needs to be written.
- I hate referring to Dan in the past tense.
- I’m thankful for having good friends in John Hindhaugh and Eve Hewitt to lean on throughout the ordeal. With many of the people in the Las Vegas media center openly weeping, summoning the strength—even if it was only borrowed for a few hours—to stay on task was made easier by John and Eve.
- I’m saddened for Jon Baytos, Cal Wells, John Barnes, Michael Andretti, Chip Ganassi, Bryan Herta and all the people who ran Dan and helped move him from the bottom to the top of the open-wheel ladder once he arrived in America.
- I’m thankful for the idea offered by IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe on Twitter: “I’ll think about Dan every time I’m fortunate enough to sit in the [new] car he helped develop. I’d love to see Dallara name the chassis DW 001”
- I love the fans at Las Vegas who never left their seats in order to honor Dan during the five-lap celebration performed by the 19 drivers whose cars were still functional.
- The same goes for the fans that’ve left candles, flowers and memorials outside the Turn 1 gate at Indy.
- I’m keeping Sam Schmidt in my prayers. Schmidt, who witnessed his driver Davey Hamilton suffer terrifying injuries in 2001 when the Idahoan rode over the back of a car and was launched into the catch fencing at Texas, watched a nearly identical replay of that accident at Las Vegas when Wheldon met a far more grave outcome.
- I’m hopeful the events at Las Vegas will not bring the positive momentum surrounding the 2012 car and season to a grinding halt.
- I’m frustrated that most of the people in the paddock and media center knew a big wreck would happen as early as Friday, yet none of us pushed hard enough to demand changes of some sorts to reduce the possibility of a crash like the one that claimed Dan.
- I wish the people who are blaming Randy Bernard for Wheldon’s death would step back and take an honest assessment of the situation. Wheldon took part in 133 IndyCar races before Las Vegas and went after every penny of prize money that was offered—just as the rest of the drivers happen to do. Wheldon used the same free will and eternal optimism in his decision to race for the money at Las Vegas as he did 133 times prior to last weekend.
- I’ll miss accosting Dan and waiting for his stellar comebacks. My “Hey there, you sexy little bitch,” and Dan’s familiar response of, “Hey there you NON-sexy bitch” was always a source of levity and laughter.
- I’ll miss Dan’s ridiculous $30,000 smile.
I’ll miss Dan. He was a champion driver, but champions aren’t hard to come by. They aren’t rare, nor are they precious.
Wheldon’s greatest accomplishments came away from the race track and had nothing to do with championship rings or trophies.
He was a champion friend. He left the people he met and cared for better off for knowing him. He was giving of his emotions and spirit. He was fearless when it came to opening himself up and letting his true character be seen. He gave love—through deep connections, pure mischief and heartfelt honesty. He was irreplaceable.
I’ve got a lot more tears to shed for you, Danny Boy, but damn I’m thankful I got to know you in this life.