“YES! YES! YES! INDY I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!!!!”
It was less than five months ago that Dan Wheldon yelled that in his radio after taking a last lap win in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 for his second Indy 500 victory. In all my years of attending the Indianapolis 500, twenty-seven to be exact, I have never seen such an exuberant winner. He genuinely loved Indy and the fans. His personality was infectious. It was the most thrilling and joyful race I have ever attended, and I could not have asked for a more deserving winner for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500. For the last 99 years, Indy 500 fans have talked about Joe Dawson’s win in the 1912 Indianapolis 500 – a race where Dawson only lead the last two laps after leader Ralph DePalma broke down after leading 196 laps. Until this year that was the least amount of laps lead by the winner. Dan broke that record this year by leading only the last lap. Dan’s record will never be broken, and I guarantee you, when the masses assemble for the 200th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500, they will still be talking about Dan Wheldon’s last lap win. When I photographed him the next day at the winner’s photo shoot, never in my wildest imagination did I suspect that it would be the last time I saw him alive.
This wasn’t the first driver fatality I’ve witnessed. I’ve seen too many drivers die in their prime, including my first racing hero Swede Savage who died in the first Indy 500 I remember watching back in 1973. In 1982 it was Gilles Villeneuve. I watched two of the best drivers ever die on live TV – Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt in 1994 and 2001 respectively. But this one hit closer to home. Although I didn’t personally know Dan, he is someone that I’ve spent around with and interacted with over the years. I even managed to get into one of the official Indy 500 winner photos that are taken the day after this year’s Indianapolis 500.
I wish I had something deep or inspirational to say. I don’t, I’m simply too numb to put together thoughts in a cohesive way. But I will say that every man and woman that straps into one of these cars for my entertainment has my utmost respect and admiration. It is impossible to be so involved with the sport and not feel such tragedy on a personal level.
Daniel Clive Wheldon leaves behind a wife and two sons, who sadly, are too young to remember him. Rest in peace Dan. You will be forever missed.