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Racing's Great Loss
Dan Wheldon still wanted it. But he’d come to realize that he didn’t need it. At least not like before.
A season on the periphery of the Izod IndyCar Series - a concept that would have maddened him when he came to the United States as an ambitious Brit seeking his fortune in 1999 - had been resoundingly pleasing to the 33-year-old after he passed on several opportunities for full-time work he considered lacking. Certainly, winning his second Indianapolis 500 on what was then a one-off start with Bryan Herta Autosport went 500 miles toward making what could have been a lost season an affirmation of his talent and business acumen. He dabbled in television commentary and excelled. He was chosen by INDYCAR to vet the next-generation race car it will debut in 2012. And when turnout was not as resounding as league chairman Randy Bernard hoped for a year-end $5-million bounty on a win at the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Wheldon was granted entry as a popular, sentimental choice.
Wheldon, the 2005 series champion and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was killed on the 13th lap of that race on Sunday.
Even as he enjoyed the intoxicating notoriety that comes with such daring, high-profile work, he seemed to have gained an appreciation for life on the outside of the cockpit, which was rooted in his wife, Susie, and his sons, Sebastian, two, and Oliver, seven months. Granted, he hoped to return to the series full-time next year, and said on Tuesday that he was closing in on multiple options, but he had undoubtedly found as much peace in that embarrassingly slow blue minivan in the front driveway as in the cockpit of a 220-mph Indy car. He joked about a possible life as a stay-at-home dad, knowing he wasn’t full ready, but sounding as if he had considered the perks.
“Maybe I’ll just take the year off and spend it with my family right?,” he said coyly on Tuesday when pressed about his future options. “Maybe I’ll do that. You never know.”
Wheldon’s death was grieved from the cockpit of race cars, where his former teammate, Dario Franchitti, wept openly while preparing for a five-lap tribute procession. Franchitti had mathematically clinched his third straight series title when his main rival, Will Power was involved in the 15-car crash on Lap 13. There would be no celebrating for a long time. Another former teammate, Tony Kanaan, sobbed behind dark sunglasses as drivers were confronted with the ultimate reminder of their occupational hazard for the first time since Paul Dana died in a pre-race warm-up crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.
At Wheldon’s home in Old Northeast, flowers and mementos had begun were being placed on the front steps within hours of Bernard announcing the driver had died at University Medical Center from “unsurviveable injuries.”
Brad Baytos, co-owner of the St. Petersburg-based Primus Racing Formula 2000 team that gave Wheldon his first racing job in North America, learned of the crash after the final race of their season at Watkins Glen International. Baytos was immediately drawn back to the hellion who in 2005 – by then racing for a first title with Andretti Autosport - showed up at the track they once ran in Palmetto wearing nothing but “swim gear” and proceeded to challenge Jon Baytos to a fastest-lap contest in an F2000 car, no shoes, no helmet, no seat belts, just to keep it fair.
Wheldon won, of course, impressing the group of hopefuls preparing to test for a spot on the team. Two years later, Wheldon wryly sort of admitted, “If that's what he says happened, you can say he said it happened."
That vision in mind, among many, Brad Baytos struggled to accept Sunday’s event.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “You think he’s invincible sometimes. I saw him just last year and he was the same old Dan.”
In some ways. The gregarious spirit and reassurance remained, but his frustrating first season at Ganassi Racing in 2006 – when he won the final race of the season to tie for the final points lead, yet lost the title to Sam Hornish Jr. by virtue of win total – and comparatively unsatisfying two seasons at Panther Racing seemed to instill in him the knowledge that preparation and control of his circumstances could yield power and peace. Undoubtedly having to sue Panther for millions in unpaid salary contributed to that realization, as did his marriage and the birth of two sons. Drawing his business acumen, he said, from his father, Wheldon got smart about what mattered for his and his family’s future. Where Wheldon had once reveled in the carefree lifestyle afforded the young and fast and increasingly wealthy, he began contemplating the waiting list for pre-schools and how a Shorecrest Academy sticker could possibly work on one of his sports cars.
While his expansive collection of shoes still filled much of the garage, there was room for Maverick, the long-haired Chihuahua, and Molly, the toy poodle. Though his domineering sense of cleanliness and order still pulled at him, there was laughter when Sebastian peed on the new carpet on the first diaper change.
When Wheldon was replaced at Panther for this season by rookie J.R. Hildebrand, Wheldon absorbed what could have been a humiliating turn of events for a former series champion and 16-race winner and projected a sense of peace that seemed more genuine the more he spoke about it. He never sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. Wheldon could have accepted one of a few lesser rides offered for this season, he said, but even in a series struggling to find and retain sponsors, in a career where job security is fleeting, pride and prudence prompted him to wait. His patience was rewarded when he passed Hildebrand – who crashed coming out of the final turn while leading – to win North America’s greatest race for the second time this May.
If he had needed racing like so many of his counterparts, to maintain a lifestyle or level of egotism, he would never have had the opportunity to forge one of the sport’s greatest moments, and with the events of Sunday, one of the most poignant images in recent memory as he kissed the yard of bricks with Sebastian at his side.
“I don’t need to do this for money anymore,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s a good position to be in. It takes all the stress out. And I think that’s one thing that Bryan noticed about me. He said, ‘You know, it’s funny seeing you at the track compared to some of the others.’ He said ‘You just enjoy driving the car.’ It does take the stress away.”
There was happiness and perspective overlooking Coffee Pot Bayou and Wheldon wore it well, although it sometimes seemed to surprise him. In an upstairs room that served as his den, Wheldon kept a collection of photographs, most of them of unscripted moments along a remarkable journey. While hosting a reporter in 2009 – shoes off at the door: some rules still applied – he noticed a shot of himself, Kanaan and former boss Michael Andretti laughing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005, the season he won his first Indianapolis 500 and series title.
“Wow,” he said, flashing that massive grin at the sight of himself at 26, with highlighted hair. “Who’s that guy?”
He was a guy that people liked, liked more as he grew into a new Dan Wheldon. And they will miss him.