Monday, October 17, 2011

Remembering Dan Wheldon

Dan Wheldon, two time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar Series champ, died yesterday. Many of you know I'm in the motorsports business and through my work, I met Dan a handful of times. He was one of the first IndyCar drivers I ever met when his team came for a test at Mid-Ohio in 2009. I was nervous at first to talk with him because it was the first time I spoke to a driver that I had seen on TV a lot before I met him. 

When I awkwardly approached him by his transporter and introduced myself as "Jesse from the track" he shook my hand, smiled and and started chatting with me, instantly making me feel comfortable and at ease. I spoke with him a couple other times at the track when he'd compete here later in the '09 season and again in 2010. Always nice, always smiling, always dripping with coolness and looking like a movie star. There are a handful of athletes in each sport that just have that aura around them where if you didn't know who they were, you would still figure it out that they were somebody. Dan Wheldon was one of those guys, and not in an egotistical way, but had an undeniable swagger and an infectious attitude. 

Due to his free agency, great relationship with Honda and technical expertise, he was tabbed as the test driver for the lighter/faster/safer 2012 IndyCar machine. The first test of the program happened to be at my track, the day after the Honda Indy 200. Several members of our staff ogled our ways around the garage and loitered in pit lane, waiting to see history. Dan's helmet mic was broadcast through loudspeakers in the pitbox and we could hear his anxiousness and excitement to put the car on track. When he finally did, it was a quick lap and back to the garage for adjustments, but he spent hours providing feedback, helping the team with information to get the car ready for next year.

At one point during the test, I went to get a photo of him as he was sitting in the garage, talking with an engineer. He never once looked my way, intently focused on their conversation until I lined up a shot with my Blackberry and snapped it, figuring I'd have his profile. I looked at my screen and there was a steely-eyed, intense look right at me... I don't remember seeing his head move my direction when I took the pic, but there it was - sort of like Barney Stinson for HIMYM fans.

It's a shame for many reasons, especially because 2011 was probably one of the greatest years of his young life. He had a baby (his second child) in March, then won the Indy 500 in May in Hollywood fashion by passing JR Hildebrand on the final turn. The younger, more affordable Hildebrand replaced Wheldon in the #4 Panther Racing entry after he was let go at the end of the 2010 season. Still without a ride after his second Indy 500 win, he jumped in the Versus booth for a few races, providing excellent insight and knowledge not often seen or heard in other former drivers-turned-broadcasters. 

One of the great oval drivers of this generation made sure to pass 10 cars in just 11 laps before the crash that took his life. After starting 34th out of 34 cars, with speed like that, I'm confident he would have finished in the top five at the very least, if he didn't win the whole freakin thing. I hope there's a racetrack in heaven that he can turn laps on all day without any pit stops.

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