In Victory Lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway following the 2012 Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, there were similarities to the Victory Lane celebration from the 2011 Indianapolis 500. The winning driver stood there with the wreath around his neck and milk dripping down his chin, all while wearing those familiar white-rimmed sunglasses, as Susie Wheldon made her way down to join in the celebration.
Of course as we all know, this was such a different celebration.
This year, it was Dario Franchitti – and not Dan Wheldon – who was the center of the celebration. And Susie Wheldon was there to congratulate one of the best friends of her late husband, who was killed in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October. Franchitti was wearing the white sunglasses – as was Susie – in honor of Dan, as they were his signature.
It looked like it was going to be a celebration with Dan Wheldon involved no matter who won, as Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – Wheldon’s three best friends in Indycar – finished 1-2-3 in this year’s race in honor of their fallen friend.
If you look up the words “strength” and “courage” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Susie Wheldon. What she went through last week cannot possibly be put into words, although I will try my best to do so.
It would have been easy for Susie to stay home – to keep the television turned off, to not open the newspaper or to stay away from the internet. It was, after all, her husband who had won the previous Indianapolis 500 and it would be Dan Wheldon’s name that would be on the lips of all who were talking about the race and on the fingertips of those who were writing about it.
A quiet and peaceful week at home – it is what any lesser person would have done. Susie Wheldon, however, is no ordinary person. Her actions during this year’s Indianapolis 500 festivities proved that she is one of the strongest individuals alive.
Instead, Susie and her two children, Sebastian and Oliver, made their way to Indianapolis – the first time she had been to the city since Dan’s public memorial there the day after his funeral last October. Others in the same situation may have gone but would have found it easier to just sit in the background and watch as everyone else went through the ceremonies and all of the events that lead up to the race every year.
That just isn’t Susie Wheldon. And it sure wouldn’t have been the way Dan Wheldon would have wanted it. Susie was involved as much as anyone could have asked her to be during those few days and handled it with the dignity and class that one would have expected.
There were times during the week where Susie seemed reluctant to do certain things – not because she didn’t want to, but because it seemed that she didn’t want to be the main focus of everything. It was in those times that Franchitti was there by her side to urge her on.
The first of those instances was on the Thursday, where Susie and the kids accepted Dan’s ring for last May’s victory in the Indianapolis 500. It was at that ceremony that Franchitti convinced Susie to try on the ring, despite her reluctance at first.
Then on Saturday at the driver’s meeting – a public meeting for the Indianapolis 500 – Susie was presented with Dan’s replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy for winning the race last year. As she did for most of the week, she received a much-deserved standing ovation.
For some people, that may have been enough for them and they would have left Indianapolis before the race. Not Susie Wheldon. She stuck around for the Indianapolis 500, watching the race from the pit stand of Scott Dixon with his wife.
She watched as Dan’s No.98 car that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 took a ceremonial lap around the track in prerace festivities. Then she watched as Franchitti, Dixon and even Kanaan led the race at some point. And she watched as Franchitti led the cars to the white flag for the final lap and held her breath as Takuma Sato tried to pass Franchitti and spun out, giving Franchitti the win.
Then Susie Wheldon made the trip to Victory Lane as she did last year, only this time it was to celebrate with Franchitti. She made her way to Franchitti, where he embraced her with a huge hug and it was then that the Indianapolis 500 winner was able to convince Susie to do one final thing for the weekend.
After the hug, Franchitti asked Susie to go with him and wife Ashley Judd in the pace car around one of Dan’s favorite tracks as Franchitti would be taking his victory laps. Of course Susie declined at first. But after some prodding from Franchitti and car owner Chip Ganassi, Susie gave in and rode off onto the famed oval with one of Dan’s best friends and his wife.
It was a fitting tribute to a great champion and a classy gesture from his best friend to his wife, who now may finally have some closure to what happened last year.
While Franchitti won the Indianapolis 500 with Dixon and Kanaan finishing second and third, it was Susie Wheldon who was the real winner this year at the famed brickyard in Indianapolis.
And that’s exactly how it should have been.
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