It was supposed to be a great day for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Instead, it was one of the worst, darkest days in the recent history of U.S. open-wheel racing.
Mere laps into the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, an horrific accident collected 15 of the 34 cars, including that being driven by Dan Wheldon, the winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500. Wheldon’s car was launched over the back of another machine and went airborne, was collected in the catch fence along the back stretch of the 1.5-mile oval, and rendered Wheldon unresponsive. He was airlifted to a nearby health center where he was pronounced dead from “unsurvivable injuries.”
It’s a heartbreaking and crushing loss. INDYCAR, a professional sporting organization that seemingly has experienced more than its fair share of misfortune, was robbed of one of its best drivers, ambassadors and, most importantly, one of its best people.
The race immediately was red-flagged following the massive accident that claimed Wheldon’s life. Once the news had broken that the 33-year-old Englishman had passed, the race was cancelled, and those drivers still in the race unanimously decided to line up in rows of three and drive five laps in tribute to their fallen colleague. It was one of the more emotional moments the sports world has seen in recent times.
The fact that his fellow drivers all wanted to honor Wheldon in that way, though, should speak to Wheldon’s reputation — in the paddock and among INDYCAR’s fan base.
He was a favorite of everyone.
I can’t remember hearing anyone — driver, owner, fan, anyone — who wasn’t happy that Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 last May as a one-off entrant in the famed race. Wheldon entered 2011 out of a ride (which speaks volumes about the landscape of U.S. open-wheel racing when a former 500 and series champ can’t find work) and only managed to line up an Indy-only deal with his friend and former teammate, Bryan Herta.
Wheldon drove that one-off into Victory Lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in eye-popping fashion after rookie J.R. Hildebrand smacked the Turn 4 wall while leading en route to the checkered flag. It was one of the more remarkable stories in sports this year, in large part because so many people delighted in Wheldon’s triumph.
He continued to delight this year even while out of the car, guesting as a color commentator for a few IndyCar Series races broadcast on Versus and serving as test driver for INDYCAR’s new Dallara formula, which is expected to debut in 2012 and, ironically, is noted for its additions to improve safety.
He was selected by INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard to take on the $5 million Go Daddy Challenge in this race after the original plan to lure outsiders to open-wheel racing did not express interest. It could be argued that Wheldon might not have even strapped into the cockpit of a car Sunday if not for this promotional effort, but that’s neither here nor there.
Wheldon even had signed the dotted line for a full-time ride in 2012 before the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships. With Danica Patrick set to move to NASCAR on a full-time basis next year, Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti had wanted to bring back Wheldon to the organization with whom he won his first “500” and IndyCar Series championship in 2005. Wheldon was set to return to the pinnacle.
He sure went through quite a journey after originally being there.
Wheldon first arrived in what was then called the Indy Racing League in 2002, making two starts for Panther Racing, and then joined Michael Andretti’s outfit in 2003, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He claimed his first win at Motegi, Japan, the next year, along with two other wins.
Wheldon’s breakout season came in 2005 when he notched six wins, including the Indianapolis 500, and the IndyCar Series championship. It seemed he never got the appreciation he deserved, however, because much of the attention the IRL received that year was directed at Patrick, then a rookie who took the world by storm becoming the first woman to lead the 500. Wheldon did demonstrate a bit of frustration at this, wearing a T-shirt reading, “I actually ‘won’ the Indy 500” at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks after the biggest triumph of his career.
Wheldon originally exhibited a bit of a “brash” personality — according to fellow driver Dario Franchitti, anyway — seeming to crave the spotlight as with the 2005 Texas stunt and in 2007 when he had a run-in with Patrick at Milwaukee, afterwards claiming he was “much tougher than she is on track.”
One could sense a change in Wheldon, however, after he married his wife, Susie, and the couple welcomed two sons, Sebastian and Oliver, now two-and-a-half years and seven months of age, respectively.
Wheldon was so happy being a family man, and it showed in his professional arena. He started to carry the banner for the IndyCar Series in terms of being an ambassador, donating the winnings of his 2008 victory at Iowa Speedways to victims of local flooding and showing unwavering support and respect for the troops of the U.S. National Guard, the sponsor of his Panther Racing machine from 2009-10.
Even during those two seasons, it seemed he got the short end of the stick. He rarely could run up front with Panther, and he even sued team owner John Barnes for unpaid wages. The aftermath of the ugly situation left Wheldon jobless once his two-year contract expired after the 2010 season.
An unfortunate turn of events for one of the most popular and beloved drivers in the sport led to Wheldon’s reaching the pinnacle again — an emotional second Indianapolis 500 victory — and the worst of fates before securing his full-time status once again in 2012.
It couldn’t be a worse proposition for the IndyCar Series, which had been throwing a party for the ages in Las Vegas for its inaugural championship finale — the drivers took their Dallaras to the Strip and also competed in a charity Black Jack tournament — that would ultimately celebrate the crowning of a champion in either Will Power or Franchitti, who ultimately claimed the title for the fourth time in five seasons.
Instead, INDYCAR faces a multitude of things to reevaluate for the future, most notably whether to continue to run these race cars on such tracks that feature foot-to-the-floor, feet-apart racing. Many drivers have voiced concerns about that style of competition, saying it only takes one miscue by one driver to cause an accident like Sunday’s tragic crash.
The sport also loses someone who could have carried the torch as its face during life after Danica. Wheldon was charismatic, media-savvy and, above all, someone who genuinely loved the sport that claimed his life.
Tony Kanaan, Wheldon’s former teammate and close friend, said Wheldon probably would want to have gone that way despite how painful it was for everyone.
And it’s going to be painful for a long time. INDYCAR, auto racing, sports and this world lost a fierce competitor, an eager ambassador and a great man.
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