A Hero Gone

This has been a sad week for me. Sunday one of my heroes died.

 

I am going to write a story that most of you have no interest in and do not need to read, I just need to write it. Sorry.

I have been an indycar racing fan for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my favorite driver was Bobby Unser. Later I became a Rick Mears fan. I drifted away for a few years until the mid90s when a young Italian came on the scene and l was a newly committed Team Target  fan, that year Alex Zanardi won rookie of the year and his team mate Jimmy Vasser won the championship. A few years later I drifted away again. The split, Greg Moore’s death, and then not long after 9/11, Alex lost his legs in a race in Germany.

When Iowa Speedway opened up, Indycar racing came too. I couldn’t wait to go to my first race, and immediately planned to check out the Team Target paddock.  And there was Dan Wheldon. And he was hot! He had a new fan!  That was the year of the devastating Iowa floods. When Wheldon won the race that day he donated his winnings to the flood relief. Now he had a fan for life.

 

(Wheldon Banner at Iowa Speedway 2009)

 

In 2010 I won pit passes from NewmanHaas. Being able to be in the pits put you way too close to the action… And the drivers. Passing Dan Wheldon in the pits, I stopped and wished him luck. He thanked me. I was over the moon.

(Getting in his car in 2010)

 (his back- in his pits in 2010 – I have about 5 pictures of his back!)

 

 (There’s the side view!)

 

 (At pit in after completing qualifying)

 

This season Dan was without ride, but was able to put together a one-off and in a surprising turn of events, he won the Indy 500 – for the second time.

The team he had driven for in the 500 had been chosen as the test team for the new car coming out in 2012, and so Dan was chosen as the driver.  That didn’t start until August so he took a job as a commentator on the Versus channel for as few races.  That brought him back to Iowa.

 

This year I won pit passes as well as access and all meals in the paddock club. This is where league officials and the broadcast team eat. Catered, and excellent food! And Dan Wheldon.

My brother and I were sitting at a table eating when Dan walked in. I turned into a 50 yr old junior high schooler “oh my god…  Oh my god… there’s Dan Wheldon!!” I said to my brother, who was used to this Wheldon-induced reaction from me. Dan sat at table behind me. I was both frustrated that he was behind me so I couldn’t stare at him, and relieved that he was behind me so I couldn’t stare at him.

 

(With Robin Miller for Versus)

Since he was the current  500 winner, and without a ride, INDYCAR came up with a challenge. Dan would start the last race in the last position and if he won, he and a chosen fan would split 5 million dollars. After practices and qualifying many drivers complained that the racing there was too dangerous. A high banked 1.5 mile oval with too much grip in open wheel cars with too much downforce and speeds of 225 mph.

12 laps in, one car in a mid-pack of cars drifted, touched wheels with the next car and triggered 15 car pile-up.  It was fire and shredded metal.  4 cars got airborne. Will Power, Pippa Mann, and JR Hildebrand were lucky to walk away, but ironically the safety of these cars saved their lives and they are now all out of the hospital.  Sadly the car couldn’t save Dan.

At 33 yrs old, he leaves behind a wife, Susie, sons Sebastian 2yrs and Oliver 7 months.

And he leaves behind a heartbroken community, of which I am one.

 

His legacy will live on. Besides his face on the Borg-Warner trophy twice, the new 2012 car, which he was the test driver, will be named after him.

 

RIP Dan Wheldon – Lionheart.

Here is a link that Indycar has set up:

The Dan Wheldon Memorial Site

 

Donations for his family can be sent to:

Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Suite 1000
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Also Graham Rahal has been spearheading an auction with the proceeds going to the Wheldon Family. More information about it will be available at the memorial site.

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