In turn, a person’s spirit may be felt stronger in absence than in being present.
The Indianapolis 500 was missing something this year. That something is the bigger than life character and personality of Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon won the 2011 version with an exciting last-lap pass of the limping and crashed car of leader J.R. Hildebrand.
The 500 was a one-off race for Wheldon’s Bryan Herta Autosport team. There were no concrete plans or funding available to continue after Indy. In the weeks that followed, Wheldon signed on for some TV commentary work. Then he wound up being the test driver for the new Dallara chassis as it was being developed.
Wheldon came into the 500 with no sign of continuing racing. But on this last Sunday in May for 2011, Cinderella’s shoe fit.
Shock. Thrill. Euphoria. Heartbreak. Joy. All were emotions that washed over the crowd within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway confines one year ago.
Thousands were shocked when leader Hildebrand slammed the fourth turn wall with the finish line literally in sight.
The fans were thrilled when Wheldon breezed past and crossed the yard of bricks first in one of the most memorable Indy finishes ever.
Wheldon’s in-car radio recorded a high-pitched euphoric scream from a man the won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for the second time in nothing short of spectacular fashion.
When Hildebrand’s crippled machine came to rest at the south side of the speedway; there was a pause in being elated for Wheldon and time to share in Hildebrand’s heartbreak. The young man climbed from his car and handled the loss with dignity.
Wheldon took part in Victory Lane and the drinking of the milk. He kissed the bricks, rolled onto his back and raised his arms into the air with his eyes shut tightly. All while his signature bright white smile gave off his feeling of joy.
Sadness. Admiration. Two feelings that were generated when accepting Wheldon’s absence from the speedway this year.
Wheldon’s widow Susie, and two sons Sebastian and Oliver were on hand for ceremonies over the weekend. She made a statement on Thursday when presented with the Circle of Champions ring for her husband, but fielded no questions from the media.
“I just want to take a moment to thank everybody for the outpouring of love and support over the past several months for me and my family,” Susie Wheldon said. “Everyone from Indianapolis, around the country and the world, my racing family and Dan’s fans. It has been so comforting to have the support of so many during such a difficult time.
“I am honored to be here to be here to accept this Champion of Champions ring on behalf of my husband. Dan loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it meant to win here, and I am proud to be here to represent him as a two-time winner. I’m proud to be here with my children, Sebastian and Oliver, to celebrate their father’s life and legacy and him as a great champion and ambassador of the Indianapolis 500. Thank you again for all of your love and support.”
During the public driver’s meeting the day before the 500, Susie Wheldon was recognized and accepted additional awards. She, along with her husband’s team owner Bryan Herta, received a lengthy standing ovation from the grandstand crowd. She made no public remarks.
Seeing a family carry on after a tragic loss can cause feelings of sadness. Susie Wheldon’s demeanor and posture were admirable despite her not speaking.
“From what I saw today she is a beacon of strength and I appreciate her being here,” said Indycar Race Director Beaux Barfield. “I just got introduced to her for the first time today. I haven’t known her before and I’m very respectful of her time and space. I’d love to say ‘Hi’ and say a couple of things to her
and see how she is, but she’s obviously very strong. It’s great that she’s here and (I’ll) spend time with her when the opportunity shows itself.”
“In the situation that we were just in with presentations (public driver’s meeting), I know it gets very emotional,” Barfield said.
White sunglasses were handed out for the fans to wear on the pace lap, lap 26, and lap 98 recognizing Wheldon’s two winning car numbers from 2005 and 2011.
Tony Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello sported white sunglasses during Saturday’s meeting.
On Sunday, a video replay of Wheldon’s pair of Indy wins played on the large video screens following the traditional playing of Taps during pre-race ceremonies.
Reminders of Wheldon’s presence were easy to find.
Billboards of former winners are on the outside of the grandstand greeting all passersby on Georgetown and 16th Streets. Wheldon is there. Flip through he event’s souvenir program. Wheldon is there.
Herta drove last year’s winning machine around the oval during the race’s parade laps. The 500’s top three finishers, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and Kanaan, were good friends with Wheldon. Dan’s wife Susie rode with winner Franchitti during his pace car Victory Lap. Dan Wheldon is here.
As a writer, I select my words about Wheldon with care. As a fan, I salute and applaud his achievements. As a husband, Susie’s strength is inspirational. As a father, a lump forms in my throat whenever I see photos of him and his children.
God bless, Dan. Your final race has been run. You will always be a winner.