I know I’m going to be writing here for this site primarily about soccer, a sport whose worldwide popularity is second to none. But sometimes you read a story or hear about something that hits you square in the heart. Sometimes, like the firing of a well-revered coach or the retirement of a well- respected player, it’s more subtle than others. Stories like what occurred today aren’t like that. Stories like what occurred today in Las Vegas are the kind people don’t want to talk about. Stories like what happened to day are the kinds of stores people dread talking about. It’s a story like that which I am going to talk about here.
I don’t know what can be said about Dan Wheldon that won’t be said in the coming days. For those who don’t know, Dan Wheldon won this past year’s Indianapolis 500, without question the most prestigious event in American open-wheel auto racing. It was his second career Indy victory, after winning his first six years ago in 2005. By all accounts, Wheldon was one of the most respected individuals in what is widely known to be a very tight-knit community. Indy Car drivers, outside of Danica Patrick, aren’t nearly as well-known as their NASCAR counterparts. This is despite the fact that by their very nature, Indy Cars are vastly more dangerous. Since the cockpit of the car is open, and the cars so much more lighter than in NASCAR, the inherent danger apparent to the driver is vast. The speeds are considerably higher, as is the risk.
Today was the 2011 season finale, held at the oval track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. As an added attraction to today’s festivities, the President of the IndyCar Series offered a five million dollar bonus for “any non-series-regular” who managed to win the race. It was an incentive intended to attract outside media attention to a rather maligned series when compared to the juggernaut that is NASCAR. Dan Wheldon, despite his Indy 500 victory, fell into this distinction. Wheldon entered the 33-car field at Indianapolis on a hope and a whim. Despite his past success in the race, his regular seat with Panther Racing was given to young upstart JR Hildebrand for the 2011 IndyCar Series. Wheldon, undeterred, found a ride with fledgling Bryan Herta Racing. Herta, a former IndyCar driver himself, knew the talent and experience Wheldon had, especially at Indy, couldn’t be matched. Wheldon didn’t let him down. He ran a spectacular race despite racing for a team that was vastly under-funded when compared to the IndyCar Series regulars like Panther, Newman-Haas, or Penske. Wheldon, with the help of a good fuel strategy and naturally a little luck, found himself at the front of the field during the last laps of the 2011 edition of the Indy 500. On the last lap of the race, ironically enough, the young rookie Hildebrand found himself in front. After taking the white flag, all Hildebrand had to do was complete one more clean lap and he would find himself etched into history as a winner of the Indianapolis 500. Wheldon, sitting in second, was about six seconds behind. By all accounts, it was Hildebrand’s race to win, and his place in history to grab and hold forever. However fate, being the cruel mistress she can be, especially in a sport like motor racing, intervened.
Hildebrand managed his way through the first three turns of his final lap clean. Entering the final turn of the final lap, with the checkered flag in sight, all Hildebrand had to do was avoid a lowly lapped car. He didn’t. He entered the corner too hard and found himself into the wall. The seas were parted, and Dan Wheldon, the Cinderella story that he was entering the race, found himself the winner of the Indianapolis 500. The driver for whom he was replaced botched the final turn of the final lap, and Wheldon won the race for the second time in his career. It was truly a legendary result for a man whose legacy in the sport has now been cemented.
Wheldon, a driver well liked by seemingly everybody else, was congratulated constantly following his win. Tony Kannan, a hard-luck Brazilian driver whose misfortune at Indy has been well-documented, was among the first to congratulate him in Victory Lane. For Wheldon, the first celebratory glass of milk he had in 2005 may have given him a name in the sport, but his second in 2011 probably cemented its legacy. Despite not landing a full-ride for the rest of 2011, he was going to have a full-ride in 2012. The mutual respect he had from his fellow drivers, and the IndyCar Series itself, led Wheldon to be the lead tester for the new chassis and car design the Series would implement for the 2012 season. When offered the chance to run one final race in 2011, at Las Vegas, he couldn’t refuse.
With everything in the bag for the future, Wheldon seemingly had nothing to lose. Then came the twelfth lap of the race in Vegas. Fifteen cars were involved in a horrific high-speed accident. Wheldon was among them. Fourteen drivers managed to escape the accident relatively unharmed. Wheldon didn’t. Wheldon, only at the age of 33, was killed as a result of the accident. While he won’t go down in history as compared to NASCAR hall-of-famer Dale Earnhardt or Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, both of whom were killed during races in their respective series, the crater left by his loss will be felt just as much among the open-wheel racing community.
All racing drivers have to embrace death as a potential inevitability of the sport in which they partake, but nobody is ever prepared for it. To truly understand Wheldon’s importance in this sport, watch the tear-filled reactions of his fellow competitors. Everyone from Danica Patrick to Tony Kannan to 2011 Series Champion Dario Franchetti all wept openly about the loss of Wheldon. His death was truly tragic, as he left behind a wife and two young children.
Wheldon, originally from Buckinghamshire in England, left behind the chance to chase the ultimate racing driver’s dream in Formula One and moved to America to have a shot at glory here, and glory he found in spades. He lived his life to fullest, just like he drove his racecar. His legacy will never be forgotten, and the state of open-wheel racing in this country will never be the same without him. He may have been a small Englishman who came here on a hope and a dream, but he managed to turn his dream into reality when he won the most prestigious race in all of American open-wheel racing once, let alone winning it again back in May.
On a personal note, when you hear about unspeaking tragedies in sports, it immediately causes you to stop and reflect. I’m not a huge fan of auto racing at all, but I remember as a young child being fascinated over the life, and death, of Ayrton Senna. If you don’t know who that is, do yourself a huge favor and look him up on YouTube. What he did on a racetrack wasn’t human. I also remember the death of Dale Earnhardt, and being in awe of how important he meant to the countless fans he had, even though the vast majority of them had never met him in their lives. Wheldon won’t be held in the same light at Senna or Earnhardt, but his legacy for IndyCar racing will be quite similar. A great talent, taken too soon, in a great tragedy. My thoughts and my prayers go out to his wife Susie and his two young children, Sebastian and Oliver. You may not read this, and you may not ever understand, but your father was a great man, appreciated, liked, and respected by all his fellow competitors. He died chasing the dream he lived for, and as far as I’m concerned as long as they run IndyCar Series races, he will always be remembered.