Bryan Herta leaned against the pit wall last Monday morning, not far from the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and watched his driver live it up. Dan Wheldon posed for photograph after photograph. With his car. His crew. His team owner. His family.
At one point, Wheldon’s 2-year-old son, Sebastian, kisses the bricks, a site that melts photographers’ hearts and makes the team owner smile a knowing smile. Bryan Herta has watched his friend mature, and he’s proud of his accomplishments.
“He’s now seen the highs and lows that motor racing brings to all of us at some point in our careers,” Herta says. “But he has a family now. He’s at a different point in his life. ... He’s appreciative of everything that comes his way now.”
Minutes later, Wheldon is in the media center at IMS, watching a replay of the race. “I never said we would win it,” he corrects a reporter, “I said we could win it. The collaboration we had with Sam Schmidt this month worked very well. Allen McDonald, their lead engineer, was someone who worked with me in the past at Andretti Green. He understands what I like from the race car. From the get-go, I knew we had a car that was going to be a very good race car. I always play down how strong my car is because I want the team to keep working hard and trying to make it better, but after Carb Day, I knew it was going to be reasonable in the race.”
By now, we’ve all seen repeatedly what happened Sunday. JR Hildebrand is leading the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 when he slides up into the gray on the exit of Turn 4 on the final lap, strikes the wall and starts to slide toward the finish line. Wheldon roars out of Turn 4 behind him, sees the disabled leader, and screams to an unlikely and unexpected victory.
“I’m currently unemployed – my contract expired at midnight last night,” Wheldon said while watching the replay of the final lap. “I knew that when I was on the beach next week with my wife that I wanted to be sure that I had done everything within my power and give every ounce of effort I had.”
Rewind to Herta, quietly watching his driver enjoy the post-race moment. It’s been a long time since Wheldon joined Andretti Green Racing in 2003 and became what Dario Franchitti calls an “annoying little brother.” In 2005, Wheldon won the 500. This time, he wept after winning.
“They’re both immense wins for me, but I think this one is perhaps more emotional for me than 2005,” Wheldon says. “I was a kid back then, at a totally different stage in my life.”
That sentiment makes Herta smile. Back in the AGR day, Herta was the ringleader for a never-ending episode of Punk’d that sent Wheldon screaming into hotel hallways and raging at his teammates at the time – Herta, Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. They lived for that reaction.
Now, it’s all different. They live to watch him mature. Wheldon is a winner again – in the most unlikely of ways – and it happened to a person who fully appreciates it. A much different Dan Wheldon.
“This sport doesn’t owe you anything, and nothing is guaranteed,” Herta says. “When something like this happens, you have to savor it for what it is, because it may never happen again to any of us.”
Amen, big brother. Amen.