The terrible news of Dan Wheldon’s passing has barely had time to sink in, maybe it never will. Like so many racing drivers he died doing what he loved, what he was born to do. Forever he will be frozen in time as a winner and as a star of his chosen profession.
This awful day will also be viewed as a final tragic chapter in true open-wheel oval racing, an era that met its end not with triumph but with heartbreaking tragedy and poignant tribute. After 100 years we only needed to see out two more hours of racing before the introduction of the new, safer Indycar that sees semi-enclosed wheels designed to prevent this kind of accident ever happening again. That Dan Wheldon was the test pilot for this new breed of oval racer is beyond ironic, it is simply tragic in the truest sense of the word.
I often get tearful over this sport of ours. I shed tears of joy at the British Superbike finale last week, sharing in the euphoria and excitement of a man and a team I’ve never known. Motorsport has that power, it is loaded with tales and characters that are so appealing. Few sports can match the drama inherent within this distant descendant of the chariots of Rome.
If the victories can be so sweet you can almost taste the champagne from the stands or on your sofa, motorsport can also be so bitter it makes you question this most burning of passions. There is no other entertainment on Earth that serves up such life-affirming experiences, nor is there one that has the potential to show tragedy unfolding before your eyes. Even the news will shy away from showing death in the raw, often coldly simplifying the darker side of life. If you watch racing long enough you will experience a day like this one; the Sunday that should make your week breaks it instead.
I first saw Dan racing in Formula Ford and Vauxhall Junior back in the 1990s when his contemporaries included Jenson Button and Mark Webber. I was impressed by him, but no more so than any other young-gun of the time. Quite unlike his peers Wheldon eschewed Europe to take a totally different approach to his career, something that endeared him to me. Other drivers who landed in Indycars were rebuilding their careers after failing in Formula One whereas Dan moved Stateside at an early age and started at the bottom of the US racing ladder with the aim of seeing the winner’s circle at the Indy 500.
Now it is relatively common to see foreign hopefuls lining up against homegrown talent in the States, back in 1999 it was a move as brave as any Dan had pulled on the racetrack. “It was very difficult to start with,” he told The Independent in 2007. “Formula One is everything when you’re brought up in Europe. It’s what you aspire to. All I knew about Indycars was Nigel Mansell, who came out here when he was forced to leave Williams. But when you come here and your heart’s still set on Formula One, it detracts from your programme. It was affecting my performance and there came a point where the team owner sat me down and said ‘you have to commit, otherwise you will lose what you have here’. So I am committed, I turned down an opportunity at the end of my last contract [to join BMW-Sauber]. I enjoy the racing scene out here.”
It seems trite to bring up the bravery needed to do what the Indycar drivers do, but it cannot be underestimated. Pulling 230 miles per hour inches from other cars and in-between unyielding concrete walls takes a unique talent that is seldom appreciated in Dan Wheldon’s home country. Britain largely ignored his rise from Formula Ford rookie through to Indy 500 and Indycar champion. Only in Europe would we ask an Indianapolis winner if they regretted their career choices as if they have failed. Like Dario Franchitti, the winner of 2011’s now hollow championship, Dan appreciated the history of a branch of the sport as old as any other motorised contest. “It would be great to win Monaco, or the Daytona 500 in a Nascar, but the heritage, even of Monaco, is nothing like the Indy 500.”
Since the heady days of 2005 with Andretti Green Racing when Dan took the Indy 500 and the championship, he went on to compete with the crack Ganassi squad, coming within a point of another championship, before finding himself at Panther Racing where he failed to win in 2009 and 2010. This slight slump left Wheldon without a ride for this year, a shocking state of affairs. He headed into a one-off appearance at the 2011 Indy 500 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports as an unlikely winner, a man with a point to prove.
Dan’s seat at Panther had been taken by the hotly-tipped young American JR Hildebrand. In the closing stages of the 500 miles Hildebrand found himself leading the race only to lose control on the final corner, his car sliding towards the finish line on two wheels. Through the wreckage came the man he replaced to sweep to one of the great Indy wins. Right there Dan Wheldon’s standing went up, his career lurching from the brink of ignominy to the edge of something new and exciting. Fortunes can turn so fast in this business.
Fast forward from the spring to the autumn and Dan Wheldon was suddenly a man in demand. After endearing himself to the fans with his excellent commentary during the races he wasn’t competing in and buoyed by his second child, he had never seemed more content and happy. The Las Vegas 300 was to be only his third race of the year, one where he was being unashamedly billed as a star attraction. He alone was deemed eligible for a $5 million bonus if he was to win the race, a gamble fit for Vegas. He had been leading development on the forthcoming new generation Dallara Indycar and as such was seen as a key asset to whomever he would drive for in 2012. Sadly this new era for Dan Wheldon will forever be a ‘what-if?’ question to be filed alongside ‘what if Greg Moore had driven for Penske?’ and other such unanswerable conundrums imposed on us by fate.
Alongside Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon will be remembered as the master of a turbulent era of Indycars. It seemed certain he would also play a key role in the sport’s reinvention in 2012 too. Sadly it is a safer new era that he will never see. We hope that the car he helped develop and the events that took his life will at least conspire to become a ‘Senna moment’ for Indycar racing that will see more heroes step uninjured from shattered racing machines in the future. That is the legacy the sport now owes him.
I’ll leave the final word to the US commentary team that did such a sterling job of keeping perspective in the midst of a disaster. American sports have a sense of theatre that stands above other so-called events, which undoubtedly formed part of the appeal which drew Dan Wheldon away from the scientific world of European racing to the glitz of the Indy 500. Broadcaster Jack Arute greeted him after his first Indianapolis win with the words, “Mr Wheldon, welcome to immortality.”
That is the perception of an Indy 500 winner; the pages of history will carry their names forever, their likeness standing proud on the Borg-Warner Trophy alongside the Unsers and Andretti, Foyt and Fittipaldi, Clark and Hill.
There were further profound words in the video above, this time about Dan rather than addressed to him, uttered in mourning rather than celebration, but they are no less powerful. The hastily arranged parade of cars was truly heartbreaking, a simple and appropriate way for Indycar to pay their respects. Please watch the video above, it is as much a tribute to the spirit and unity of all motorsports as it is a tribute to a man. “Goodbye Dan Wheldon.”