Dan Wheldon – a champion, a friend, a husband, a father, a LIONHEART.
To many, Dan was a familiar face at the race track, a fan favorite; to others he was someone who touched their life in some way. For me, he was the driver I went to watch, the reason I pursued a PR career. Dan was a cherished friend.
Dan showed true sportsmanship and class as he walked threw the paddock greeting fans and competitors. He made sure to take time out of his schedule to say hi and sign autographs.
The season I became a Dan Wheldon fan, he won every race I attended. I made a point to get a photo in every victory circle. Dan eventually realized I was asking for a photo with him multiple times that season and by the last race we had created a “date” in victory circle if he won. Just so happens that he did.
That silly little inside joke between Dan and I was something he never forgot. Every race I attended after that season, prior to him getting in the car we would say to each other “See ya in victory circle”. Overall those moments are probably the ones I miss and will forever cherish.
The Vegas race weekend started out just the same as every other race weekend. I arrived to the track after flying into town and quickly found Dan to say hi and wish him well for the weekend. I had all the confidence in the world he would achieve the task of winning. Race day started out like any other. I unfortunately waited till the last minute to get a current hero card for Dan, but was lucky enough to get the last one in the transporter.
As Dan arrived back to his car after driver intros, we said our famous words and shared a quick hug before I headed to pit exit to watch the race. Never would I have imagined that quick hug would be the last I received on pit road, or that the green flag Dan was about to take would be his last. As the green flag waved Dan was on the move, which only boosted my confidence that he would be taking the win. In just a short period, he moved up ten spots and was headed for the next. As I watched him cross the start/finish line on lap 13 I followed his car past where I was standing and quickly turned to watch the rest of the lap on the jumbo screen. In that split second the yellow was flying, cars were flying and debris was going everywhere.
Prior to INDYCAR red flagging the race, I watched each car that was still running pass by pit road. Dan was never one of them. I immediately began to worry and started asking a co-worker of my dad’s about the cars involved. For several minutes there was no record of where Dan was, which only made the knot in my stomach greater. You knew it was a bad wreck from the get-go, but not knowing the status of your favorite driver only makes it worse. When it was finally made known that Dan was the worst off and would be flown to the nearest hospital, I began pacing up and down pit road praying that he would be ok. Two hours later a good friend of mine and girlfriend of one of the other drivers came to the group of HOLMATRO employees I was standing with and told us the news. I turned around and went walking toward my dad, who could just tell by the look on my face that what I was about to say was not good.
I remember completely losing it on pit road that fateful afternoon. People who knew I was close with Dan quickly began texting and calling me. I was living in a nightmare that has yet to end. Shortly after the announcement all the remaining drivers decided to call the race off and do a 5-lap tribute. Everyone in the pits was asked move to the edge of the grass as the cars went by. The number 77 shown bright in the number 1 spot on the scoring tower, leaving not a single dry eye at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
As we approach the one-year anniversary, I realize I have yet to come to terms with that day. I still have nightmares of how it happened; Dan’s photos on Facebook still bring tears to my eyes. On average I would attend 2 – 3 races a year. This season I have not been able to attended one, and have watched only the INDY 500 on TV. This year there was a big missing piece from INDYCAR.
Dan left a huge impact on INDYCAR, recognized by the Dallara DW12. The series lost more than just a driver, they lost a piece of the personality of the sport. Even on a bad weekend you would catch him smiling with his team. Dan touched so many lives with something as simple as his million-dollar smile.