How Will Dan Wheldon Be Remembered?

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For it to be the offseason, things are pretty busy in the world of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Everyone seems to be waiting for the first domino to fall with drivers switching seats. There is a curious implosion going on at KV Racing Technology along with the growing rumor of a Tony George takeover of the series he founded. There is also news that NBCSN will also be carrying Formula One races starting next season, which could be a good thing for IndyCar. But all of that gets put on the back-burner as we take a moment and remember the life of Dan Wheldon, just one more time.

As most of us know, it will be exactly one year tomorrow, October 16th, that Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Most readers of this site know that I haven’t dwelled as much as others on that day last year. It could be that I come from an era when death was fairly commonplace in motorsports. Perhaps it’s just my personality to not come forth with overly emotional tributes when someone passes away. But I would be remiss if I didn’t somehow acknowledge his life as we approach the one-year mark.

Rather than dwell on how sad that day was or how much we miss him, I think it’s time to focus on how Dan Wheldon will be remembered. Some will remember him as a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Others will remember his as a good friend, husband, father, brother and son. For me, I’ll choose two ways to remember Dan Wheldon. First and foremost, Dan Wheldon was a racer – plain and simple. He lived to race. But aside from being a racer, and maybe more importantly – he didn’t take himself too seriously.

I am not going to pretend that I knew Dan Wheldon. I didn’t. Nor did he have a clue who I was. But he and I did cross paths a few times over the past several years. My first encounter with him was in 2003, here at the Nashville race. He was the up and coming star driving the good looking Jim Beam car. People had already begun to take notice of his driving talents, even though he had landed on his head a couple of months earlier at Indianapolis late in the race. My son was thirteen at the time and had already adopted Wheldon as his favorite driver. We were roaming the garage area looking for any driver that might give my son an autograph, when we spotted Wheldon on a scooter heading unnoticed between a couple of transporters. Although I’ve never been a fan of invading a driver’s space, we tracked him down.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew Wheldon was a brash hot-shot British driver who seemed friendly for the cameras, but who knew what he was like in person? The media hadn’t fully discovered him at that point and I really knew nothing about him personally. It would be easy for a rookie to blow us off just a few hours before the green flag. Instead, we found a young driver who couldn’t have been more accommodating – to me or my son. He was friendly. He was engaging. He asked my son questions to get him out of that “star-struck” mode. All in all, I’m guessing Wheldon spent between five and ten minutes talking to us about Nashville, racing and what bands my son liked. Oh yeah – he gave him his autograph too.

A few years later, again in Nashville – we were all going through the autograph line the night before the race. By this time, Wheldon was driving for Target Chip Ganassi. While some drivers seemed inconvenienced to be there (Marco comes to mind) and were signing the cards without even looking up – you could hear Dan Wheldon holding court with fans while we were still back in the line. In fact, he was holding up the line as he was joking around with fans and fellow drivers alike. It was dusk at the track. Wheldon no longer needed those trademark white sunglasses and had placed them over to the side. As the line finally made its way to Dan’s table, he was chatting with some fans that had already gotten his autograph – along with his teammate Scott Dixon, and he had not yet looked our way. For whatever reason, I picked up those white sunglasses of his and asked him to please autograph my sunglasses.

He actually started to sign them when he suddenly looked over and noticed his were missing. He stood up and gave me an over-exaggerated “Hey…what are you to trying to pull here?” It was all in fun and he had a big laugh. Even Dixon got a chuckle out of it. I guess the fact that I made him laugh at his own expense scored some points because he gave us a lot more time than even those he had already chatted it up with.

The last time I saw Dan Wheldon in person was about two hours after he had just won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in an improbable victory. He, Bryan Herta and Steve Newey had just finished giving their formal interviews in the IMS Media Center. Most of the crowds had cleared out and they were coming out of the interview room just as Susan and I were getting off of the elevator. There I was, face to face with the new champion with only a few people standing around. What thoughtful and insightful question or comment did I throw his way? “Congratulations, Dan”. What was his reply? “Thanks, man.”

Although it wasn’t riveting dialogue, it was very meaningful to me. How many people get to say anything to someone within a couple of hours after they have just won the Indianapolis 500? Not many. The thing that struck me was here was a two-time champion that could have big-timed me and ignored the comment. I wouldn’t have blamed him. But instead, he spoke back and seemed almost humbled to do so. He knew the enormity of what he had just done, yet he was humbled and was grinning like a little kid.

That’s the way I’ll remember Dan Wheldon.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “How Will Dan Wheldon Be Remembered?”

  1. Tony Hull Says:

    I believe all of your possible answers are true, but the highest compliment you can make of anybody that works in racing is to call them a ”Racer”. So I voted for that.Thanks for another thoughtful column.

  2. i agree with tony hull about being a racer,but i will remember dan by all 4 ways listed,so i voted all 4. great article about a great guy. i’m 53 so i’ve seen many deaths in racing,especially in the always dangerous open-wheel. as a young teen i picked mark donohue as my favorite driver in 1971. the next year he won indy…then he retired…then he came out of retirement and was killed in a race car. all the racing deaths between then and now doesnt make it any easier to swallow. i get very emotional,because when a racer dies…he dies living life to the fullest at a young age. not many people make a living at doing the one thing they love most in life. very few have the talent to wrap their passion around to be very successful…so when they are taken,to me its just very very sad. racers are a special breed of humans.

  3. Dan was a favorite of mine as well. He won me as a fan at Indianapolis his rookie season and I was able to congratulate Michael Andretti later that year at Nashville for have a young driver who I thought was going to have a great career. Michael was pretty happy about that and you could tell it. Dan was always good to be around in the garage area as well. He was a good guy and he was sincere about it. All class. I could go on, but I’ll finish with saying that as a fan I still celebrate his 2011 Indianapolis 500 win. It was one of the most joyous occasions that I have had at a 500 and that is because of the kind of man Dan was.

  4. The Lapper Says:

    INDYCAR will miss Dan Wheldon for a long time. His personality and ability was a huge asset to the sport. With his ease behind the microphone he seemed to be on his way to the broadcast booth after he retired from an illustrious career behind the wheel. I feel, too, that he was becoming the face of the sport and he didn’t have a full time ride. Dan was incredible.

  5. Megan K. Bickel Says:

    Loved this tribute, George.

  6. Daniel Wheldon, that is what my grand daughter called him, “Daniel”. He was “the” 1 ambassador of INDYCAR racing we had. Paid my visit to Turn 1 the week of his death, and also attended the program at the fieldhouse in Indianapolis, never have I been so moved emotionally about an INDYCAR driver’s passing. I am now 58 years old, and still to this day, miss Daniel Wheldon.

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