Today, Wednesday, October 16th, is the two year anniversary of the passing of Dan Wheldon. October 16, 2011 was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had to go through in my twenty years of being a racing fan. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Dan. It was like losing a close friend even though I never met or knew Dan Wheldon personally. Dan Wheldon touched many lives in the IndyCar community and for the most part, the entire racing world.
Ironically, when Dan Wheldon first came into the IndyCar in 2003, for some reason, I didn’t think too much of him. I didn’t dislike him and at the same time, didn’t like him too. As the next few seasons progressed, he was turning out to be a pretty solid driver in IndyCar. By 2005, he won the Indianapolis 500 becoming the first Englishman since Graham Hill to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Dan went on to win five other races that season and won the 2005 IndyCar Series title.
Dan went on to Target Chip Ganassi Racing for the next three seasons and still for some reason, I wasn’t too fond of him. Shortly before the 2008 season ended, Wheldon would be released from Ganassi and would go to Panther Racing replacing a driver that was one of favorites at the time Vitor Meira. When I first heard that news, to be honest, I wasn’t really thrilled. It took me awhile to get over it. Vitor of course went on to A.J. Foyt Racing.
Even though Dan would not win a race for Panther, he was a outstanding spokesperson for the teams sponsor, the National Guard. Dan would make time out of his busy schedule to visit the National Guard troops from all over the world. When getting interviewed on television or radio, Dan would not just mention the National Guard, he would thank the National Guard and the troops serving their country all around the world and would say it with great enthusiasm. As a person that has a brother that served in the military for four years, Dan Wheldon’s acknowledgement and respect for the military is what made me turn into a fan of his.
The 2011 Indianapolis 500 had one of the most bizarre and exciting endings in the races history. JR Hildebrand had the win within his sights until he got up in the marbles in turn four trying to avoid running into a lapped car and would go straight into the wall allowing Wheldon to go by and win his second 500. To me, it was one of the most heartbreaking and exciting finishes at the same time. I was really pulling for JR to get a win in his first Indianapolis 500, as I was sitting in the infield that day, I was shocked and dissppointed to hear from Dave Calabro’s voice that he hit the turn 4 wall coming to the checkers. On the flipside, I was happy for Dan Wheldon getting his second 500 win in a one off ride with a small upstart IndyCar team Bryan Herta Autosport.
It was frustrating to see that Wheldon, despite being a two time Indianapolis 500 champion and also a IndyCar champion, could not get a full time ride in the IndyCar Series. It was the sign of the times in racing as sponsorships are getting more difficult to secure due to a weak economy.
Later that season at Iowa, Dan Wheldon was a guest commentator for the IndyCar race on Versus (now NBCSN). When I watched the broadcast, I was impressed with Wheldon in the television booth. It seemed like he was having fun calling the race with Bob Jenkins and Jon Beekhis. It was joy to watch and listen to Dan. It also didn’t hurt that the race was pretty good with the duo between Wheldon’s former teammate Tony Kanaan and the eventual race winner Marco Andretti.
What I admired most about Dan Wheldon was his passion for IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500. To Dan Wheldon, the Indianapolis 500 was everything. He once quoted “The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500”. I remember he was at the 2011 Brickyard 400 as a guest of sponsor Big Machine Records. Wheldon was getting interviewed by the Speedway public address system. He enthusiastically show his support of the sport of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When he was asked about how he felt being named the test driver of the new Dallara chassis, he would say he felt like a kid in a candy store. Being the test driver of the IR12 chassis (which would be renamed the DW12 in Wheldon’s memory) was something Dan took seriously and with great pride.
Wednesday will be a emotional day. My thoughts will be with the Wheldon family.