October 16, 2011, a day that will live in infamy in INDYCAR racing. The day we lost one of the greatest men and one of the greatest drivers to ever slide into a racecar all way too soon, Dan Wheldon.
That sunny Nevada day had began with such hype. A championship was to be decided between Dario Franchitti and Will Power, the series was beginning a new era with new cars and engine manufactures for the next season and Wheldon’s career was set for a rejuvenation as he had signed with Andretti Autosport to replace Danica Patrick.
Wheldon started in the back of the field as part of a bonus gimmick from INDYCAR, and was giving it his all up until lap 12. All of that excitement vanished in the blink of an eye as two cars came together and chaos ensued, resulting in a 15 car crash which ended with Wheldon losing his life.
The Dan Wheldon that left us was a man that was entering the prime of his life. Sure, statistically his series championship and most of his wins came 2008 and prior and he was nothing shy of talented behind the wheel but something was different about Wheldon this time around. He had a beautiful wife Susie by his side, two baby boys Sebastien and Oliver and just won his second Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion.
Gone was his young, prickly personality of years past. He was by no means unlikeable, he was just a little pretentious.
For example, following his win in the 2005 Indianpolis 500 after he battled late for the win with Danica Patrick, it was Patrick, who finsihed fourth, who garnered the most attention from the public. Wheldon came to the next race at Texas Motor Speedway wearing a shirt saying “I actually won the Indy 500.”
Wheldon entered the Month of May in 2011 with a one race deal for Bryan Herta Autosport after losing his ride at Panther Racing under questionable circumstances and being out of a ride for the first time in his career. From the moment that he signed with BHA, Wheldon was not only just simply excited to have the opportunity to drive an IndyCar again, but was adamant that the team was strong enough to win the Indianpolis 500 even though the team had only ran the 500 once before and barely made the race at that.
“It wasn’t PR speak for him, he absolutely believed that we were going to win,” said Bryan Herta. “It was his belief in us, that absolutely elevated our gain and made us better,” he added.
That mentality carried over to the Month of May as the #98 William Rast Dallara was quick the entire month and never skipped a beat. Come race day, Wheldon stayed in the hunt the whole day until the race became the battle of fuel mileage as first Danica Patrick was forced out of the lead by fuel. Belgian Bertrand Bagguette then picked up the lead and was fixing to make an upset of his own but also was short on fuel. Rookie JR Hildebrand then took over and was poised to take home the win until turn 4 of the 200th lap, when he hit the marbles trying to lap Charlie Kimball and hit the wall.
Wheldon snaked passed and took the win, leading only the final straightaway of the race.
The Dan we saw in victory lane basked in the glory of winning his second May Classic, screaming on the radio to his team and his wife Susie, telling her how much he loved her, holding his sons Sebastien and Oliver, drinking the milk and celebrating with the legions of fans that flocked to 16th and Georgetown that day.
Despite not having a ride for the rest of the season Wheldon quickly assumed a role as an ambassador for IndyCar and his performance there was as good as his driving, reprenting the sport accross America. He also fit in well in the TV booth for Versus (now NBC Sports) temporarily replacing Wally Dallenbach Jr.
All the while, Wheldon was taking it all in and enjoying life.
Danger is something that is part of racing but that does not make it any easier when it happens and with Dan, the saddest part of all was that on and off the track, a man was entering the prime of his life.