About four and one-half months ago, my family friends and I watched Dan Wheldon race a rock-solid Indy 500 and receive a gift as J.R. Hildebrande lost control of his car in the final half mile of the most famous race in the world.
We sit in the first row, just coming out of the first turn (Southwest Vista, to be precise)...and when the white flag dropped, Hildebrande passed us and Wheldon did so shortly after. And under a minute later, when Wheldon zipped passed us and Hildebrande limped to a stop in turn one (after some other traffic passed), we knew that the one-time Indy champ from England had won his second...but nothing was official.
|Second Win at Indy|
We waited in the stands as other fans began to file out, hoping to receive the official results. But as Wheldon took a famous swig of milk and interacted with teammates, competitors and fans alike who loved him, there were no official results. And as Wheldon took a ride in the pace car with his family celebrating the victory, there was still no word.
So we waited on Dan...but we knew...he was the winner.
Today, I got together with a few members of my family to watch the final race of the IndyCar season, I was pretty excited to see what would happen- Would it be Franchitti or Power to win the championship? Would the 1.5 mile NASCAR venue prove to be a good place for the open wheel machines to run?
I know, it's football season...and I agree; the fall is time for football. But unlike NASCAR, Indy knows that the season shouldn't be three-quarters of a year long...and the last race was a ton of fun to watch as another favorite of mine, Ed Carpenter held off Goliath (in the form of Dario Franchitti) for the sixth-closest race in the history of the series. So, I was ready for racing.
As the cars readied for the race, there was a bit of nervousness in the air. Some of the drivers seemed clearly nervous about the large field, high speeds and short course...but these men and women regularly put their lives on the line, so danger isn't a new concept to them.
Before the green flag dropped, ABC's commentators talked to Dan Wheldon about the race and the opportunity he had been given. In typical Wheldon fashion, he thanked everyone- sponsors by name, his owner Sam Schmidt, and of course, the fans. This was Wheldon's calling card...and one thing he seemed to pick up from the good ole boys in NASCAR- give credit to those who put you where you are.
Wheldon got "it". He was the best ambassador IndyCar racing had. Sure, he had the most-obvious veneers in the history of man, but he knew his English dentistry wouldn't help him as he pimped energy drinks, designer jeans, IZOD clothing or Honda Racing engines.
|The Ambassador of the IndyCar Series|
My brother met Wheldon, Dixon and some of their Ganassi teammates a few years ago at a bar, and Wheldon's TV persona matched reality. He was personable to my brother (who's a knowledgable Indy fan) took time to talk to him and seemed like a man's man. My brother's interaction helped galvanize my thoughts about Wheldon...he was a likable guy who was good, no great for my second sports love (after Purdue sports, of course).
A few years ago, before J and I had built a readership that actually cared what we had to say, I used to write about IndyCar a lot more. J would write about the Yankees, and I'd write about that week's IndyCar race...and since it was the off-season for Purdue sports, it was a good way to fill the time. So for those of you who are surprised to be reading about racing on this site, don't be...do a google search, it used to be the norm.
So back to Las Vegas. The race started with a blistering pace. Side-by-side racing a la Kentucky or Texas was the norm. But every now and again, even in the very early laps, the cars would get three wide for no apparent reason other than foolishness. And on lap 11, after Wheldon had climbed 10 spots to #24, hell and its fury broke loose in the form of the worst wreck I've ever seen.
It was violent, smoky, had flashes of fire and multiple cars airborne. My older brother was in the other room with LBD and when the everything began I couldn't help but bounding out of my seat and yelling, "OH NO!!"
J often jokes about how the typical race fan loves a good wreck...and he's probably right. But I'm not a fan of them. The cars are moving too fast and too much is on the line to revel in the carnage. In my opinion, if you like wrecks, you don't like racing.
So as I watched the cars come to a rest, I tried to figure out which 15 drivers had been involved. I noticed Power first...and thought how Franchitti surely didn't want to win the Championship in this manner. Then I saw Mann crying (which is odd at the scene of a wreck) as she was loaded into an ambulance. Then I noticed that Wheldon had been involved...and upon the next shot, I knew it wasn't good.
So once again, we waited on Dan...but this time we knew it wasn't good.
He was rushed via lifeline helicopter to the hospital, the race went red...and there was no news about Wheldon...and that's simply awful news. After a half hour...hour...hour and one half passed, there was still no news on Wheldon's condition...But every race fan that I texted and spoke to knew the truth- the 2011 Indy 500 Champ was gone.
The official announcement was followed by an unusual 5 lap memorial driven by the remaining 19 running cars as they followed the pace car. As the brave men and women got back into their cars, many sobbed like a child- the type of uncontrollable weeping that causes your body to convulse. It was like nothing I've seen, nor hope to ever see again.
I never had the chance to meet Wheldon, but it didn't stop me from being saddened. I thought of his two young kids and wife that were left behind...the horrible flight they'd have to take tonight to come get the body of their Daddy and husband and all of his friends, teammates and competitors that will have to mourn him in the coming months/years.
|The Wheldon Chassis|
Wheldon didn't have a regular ride this season in the series. So he used his talents to help develop the new chassis and engine packages that are finally being unveiled in 2012. Ironically, one of the new features of the (some say) ugly duckling chassis is a rear carbon bumper that serves two purposes- One, it helps reduce the large amount of drag created by the large open tires and two, it will deter cars from running up and over the back wheels of cars during wrecks and sending them into the air like rockets. This feature will be implemented months too late.
I hope IndyCar and/or Dallara decides to name the Chassis the Wheldon Chassis as an homage to the now deceased fun-loving ambassador of the sport. Regardless if this this happens, Wheldon's loss will be remembered and felt by fans like me. I've seen other drivers die while racing, but for some reason, Wheldon's loss shakes me up more than the others.
|The 2011 Indy 500 Winner, Dan Wheldon|