Dan Wheldon departed the world he loved so much far too early on Sunday afternoon, leaving the entire motorsports community in a horrified state of grief.
Wheldon passed away at age 33 after a horrific 15-car crash in the opening laps of the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He is survived by his wife Susie, his two sons Sebastian and Oliver and millions of fans from across the world.
Wheldon had come full circle in 2011, winning the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, becoming the test driver for the new chassis for 2012 and signing a contract to replace Danica Patrick in possibly the most visible seat in the series. He was on top of the world when he took the green flag on Sunday afternoon, but in an instant, we lost Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon made a point to be the most accessible driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series since arriving on the scene a decade ago. This spirit endeared him to fans, as he always had time for an autograph, a picture or a flash of his signature smile. This last year, Wheldon looked to be engulfed in pure joy every moment we saw him despite not having a full-time ride in the sport he loved.
The native of Emberton, England, will be remembered years from now as a great champion, a man who claimed two victories at Indianapolis and six Top 10 finishes in just nine years at the world’s most famous speedway.
But now, the world remembers him as a great man. The tragedy struck the field of drivers so badly that IndyCar canceled the remainder of the race, as well as the continuation of their season-end celebration in Las Vegas. Never before in the history of IndyCar has a race been canceled because of a driver fatality. That was the power of Dan Wheldon.
Fans began gathering at an impromptu memorial outside the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway almost immediately after the race was red flagged on Sunday. It was filled with pictures, messages, candles and even a few bottles of milk in an attempt to connect to a driver who meant so much to them. The IZOD IndyCar Series has become more of a family than any other sport in the world, with constant driver-fan interaction and a series full of rivals that are friends off the track. That family lost their favorite little brother on Sunday.
Over the next few weeks, there will be an outpouring of support from drivers, owners and fans who were touched by the life of Dan Wheldon. They will tell wonderful stories about their time with him and what a great champion he was.
For me, I knew what a great champion Wheldon was in 2006, before I started covering the series. The season-opening race in Homestead, Miami, began with tragedy as Paul Dana was killed in an accident during the morning warm-up session. The drivers decided to muster on, doing the only thing they knew how to do to cope—go racing.
Wheldon beat Helio Castroneves at the line to capture his first victory for Chip Ganassi, and his first words on the radio were not celebratory in any way. Dan only cared about his fellow warrior who had passed earlier that day, saying, “Nice job boys, under the circumstances we cannot celebrate this one," and then beginning his post-race press conference by talking only about the Dana family and the sadness of the day.
The drivers and ABC's announcing crew soldiered on that day and continued the race despite the tragedy. On Sunday, Wheldon’s death broke the back of the IndyCar series to the point where they could not soldier on. His best friends in racing, broadcasting, promotion and every other aspect of the series could do nothing more than salute their fallen brother with a five-lap tribute to Dan.
Next March, the series will go on, as it always has before with the unfortunate fatalities that occur in motorsports. The first race of the 2012 season with the new, safer car that Wheldon helped craft will take place in St. Petersburg, where Wheldon resided. IndyCar will undoubtedly run the weekend and the entire 2012 season in tribute to Dan Wheldon.
For me, the entirety of this tragedy will not set in until next May. These drivers become our lives in Indianapolis for the month of May, and the bright white veneers of Dan Wheldon will be sorely missed. Life will go on, sport will go on, but the memory of Dan Wheldon will never fade in the multitude of lives he has touched in his brief time on earth.
His family will be the ones who truly feel the loss over time. For the rest of us, we can take some note of happiness for Wheldon himself, who left the world the happiest he had ever been in his life.
In the words of Bruce McLaren, famed racing driver and race car designer:
Who is to say that he had not seen more, done more and learned more in his few years than many people do in a lifetime. To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.