Editor's Note: A friend told me on Friday night, "You should always listen to Dan. There's no other driver who does more for the fans." On this fan website, we will honor and thank him for what he's done. Below, the INDYCAR Nation writing staff reflect...
I had the opportunity to interview Dan just a few weeks ago. He was incredibly pleasant, unselfish of his time (skipping part of his lunch to finish our interview), and when he spoke about INDYCAR racing, you could tell he truly loved it with everything he had.
Getting to see him interact that same week with fans in Kentucky was seeing a true master at work. I remember him good-naturedly teasing a boy who liked NASCAR, and showing him on a phone how INDYCAR was so much faster. Yet it was the way that did it that stood out--without malice, utterly charming, and full of humor. He had a way of making fans feel as if each and every one of them was valued, important, and the best part is they truly were. He gave generously of himself, and I suppose that's one of the reasons this hurts so much. He was a fan's champion.
I didn't know when I took a quick photo with him, chatted about our interview, and shook his hand that it would be the last time I would get to talk to him. In our last interview, he said it wasn't for him to decide where his place was among the all-time greats of the Indianapolis 500 or INDYCAR. I think everyone today would agree his immortal place in our history and our hearts is secure.
Godspeed, Dan, and God bless until we meet again.
- In my mind, Dan Wheldon underwent two evolutions. He went from a green rookie that played wingman to Sam Hornish Jr. in the final two races of Hornish's successful 2002 title battle against Helio Castroneves, to a world-beating champion with Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport), and then, finally, a veteran ambassador for the sport with credentials that matched with his warm personality.
Then, there's the personal side. In his earlier years, he seemed to absolutely relish being the bachelor that was the life of the party. That was why I thought my mind had literally slipped when I first got word that he was getting married a few years back. But it most certainly worked out and Wheldon turned out to be, by all accounts, a proud husband and father.
As I look back, both of those evolutions jump out at me. In many ways, he grew up before our eyes.
- That said, even though he had matured considerably by the time he won his second Indy 500, he was still capable of being a rascal. After getting over the shock of the finish between him and J.R. Hildebrand, I headed down to the media center at IMS and eventually, I got the mic to ask him and his team owner Bryan Herta a question about where their victory ranked in the many accomplishments they had together over the years and about the bond they had as friends.
It was a serious question in tone and I was expecting a serious answer in tone. Wheldon took a few bites of his pasta and after Herta prodded him ("Well...Danny Boy?"), he looks at me and goes, "Who said we were friends?"
"He's sacking me at midnight tonight!"
Cue more laughter.
It was epic.
- Finally, I can see a day where the 2012 IndyCars -- designed to perform better and be safer than the generation of machines that has been retired -- are regarded as Wheldon's final legacy. He and Bryan Herta Autosport put a lot of time and effort in developing these cars. I'm beginning to notice a swell of support for the concept of naming the chassis after him, whether it's James Hinchcliffe's 'DW 001' suggestion or More Front Wing writer Paul Dalbey's suggestion of 'Lionheart,' Wheldon's nickname.
No matter what the name, it would be a fitting honor for a great champion and human being.
Dan was indeed my favorite driver. I remember like yesterday my first visit to IMS. I was in the pits when I first laid eyes on Dan. As an impressionable young girl, I was immediately smitten with him. Never one to skip my due diligence, I dove head first into researching anything and everything on Dan, and his sport. I was soon hooked on the fast cars and impassioned drivers of IndyCar and thus my love of racing was born. A few years down the road when considering my future career, I was once again drawn to the charisma of the IndyCar drivers, especially Dan. The thought of working with people like him was too intriguing to pass up. A few emails and meetings later, I had inadvertently landed my dream internship. So when I say that Dan was an integral part of my shaping my future, I really mean it.
I was fortunate enough to meet Dan on several different occasions, and as has been said over and over, he was a genuinely nice guy. And I'll admit the 14 year old girl inside me was a bit crushed when he announced his engagement. But after seeing the smile on his face when he was with her and the absolute ease and excitement with which he took to fatherhood, no one could hold his new family man status against him.
Dan was a man full of kindness, good humor, and talent. He is the face I associate with IndyCar racing and it absolutely breaks my heart that I will never see those perfect teeth smiling back at me at the track ever again. His untimely death seems so cruel, unfair and almost unimaginable to me. Thinking of his friends, family, wife and little boys quite literally breaks my heart. The loss I feel can't even hold a candle to theirs. I keep faith in the thought that he touched so many lives, including mine, and he certainly lived his to the fullest.
You will be missed, truly and greatly, Dan. Until we meet again, Godspeed.
Unfortunately, I was never afforded the opportunity to meet Dan, personally. I can only remember him from what I witnessed on television and from what others have said of him.
Shortly after this year's Indy 500, I interviewed Bryan Herta and Steve Newey, principals of Bryan Herta Autosport, about their triumph. There were a number of topics discussed, but one that received special emphasis was Wheldon's impact on the team when he signed that one-race deal. According to them, if Wheldon had not been their driver, this victory would never have happened.
And that can sum up what he meant to the sport, both on and off the track. He was among the best in the paddock, with 16 wins, two Indy 500 victories, and one series title in a career that still seemed quite young. New life had been injected to it this year and he had only just signed on with Andretti Autosport for the 2012 season. I had planned to speak with Dan in the off season about his return to Michael Andretti's outfit, along with his other accomplishments from 2011, and what the season overall meant to his career, which seemed to stall after a disappointing two-year stint with Panther Racing.
But, like the great champion he was, Wheldon bounced back, helping Bryan Herta Autosport to the ultimate triumph. And though it was his only planned race of the season, he was then able to take advantage of other opportunities. He became a guest analyst with Versus during the summer, allowing his wit and charm to shine in all of its glory. Surely, once he decided to retire from racing, a career in the broadcast booth beckoned.
Wheldon was also an ambassador for the sport. That wit and charm made him a favorite with everyone. He was great with all fans, big and small, great with the media, great with the teams he drove for. There aren't many who can do that. I heard it once said that few drivers, despite extraordinary racing skills that may put them in the spotlight, are universally liked as people. Wheldon was one of those few.
In this time of tremendous sadness, I would like to thank my fellow INDYCAR Nation writers for there kind thoughts. I would also like thank those who offered memories of Dan Wheldon, allowing those us who never knew him a glimpse into who he was and what he was like. I also thank those who shared moments that displayed his indelible humor, letting us know that though we are all sad about Dan and will mourn his loss, we can still smile when we think of him.
Put simply, Dan touched the lives of everyone, even those who never had the pleasure of personally meeting him. My deepest thoughts and condolences go out to his wife Susie, sons Oliver and Sebastian, the rest of the Wheldon family, and the entire INDYCAR and motorsports brethren. We have lost a tremendous driver, colleague, friend, and champion.