RIP Dan Wheldon

October 18, 2011
By K. Becks

It has been almost two days since the fiery 15-car wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway took the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, but I’m still having trouble getting over the loss.

Maybe it’s because I know that the sport is never the same after a loss like this. I think back to 2001, when the life of Dale Earnhardt Sr. was taken on the final lap of the Daytona 500. A decade later, the influence and memory of the man who is known simply by his first name in racing circles still remains. The Daytona 500 will forever invoke memories of the black number three car. That can’t be it though, because although Wheldon will always be remembered by the IndyCar community, he bounced around between too many teams during his career to simply be remembered by a number.

Maybe it’s because he was known as such a genuinely well liked individual, both by competitors and fans. I only had the opportunity to meet him on two brief occasions at autograph sessions in the Mid-Ohio infield, but even in those short fifteen second meetings I could tell that he was a great man. What athlete do you know that would take the time not only to sign something for you, but would also make out a separate autograph for your mom on request? This isn’t the time to start criticizing other athletes, but I can tell you flat out that the answer is not many.

The smile that radiated throughout the garage on race weekends is probably what his fellow competitors will miss most. Guys like Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti didn’t just lose a former teammate; they lost a friend. In the competitive atmosphere of auto racing, the bonds between colleagues normally aren’t that tight. All you have to do is see and hear the emotion of the drivers mentioned above when they found out their friend had passed to realize that this was an exception.

Maybe it’s so hard to get over Wheldon’s death because I see two young boys that will grow up without their dad. As someone who’s greatest goal in life is to become a father, I admire someone who was the true definition of a family man. In his book entitled Lionheart, Wheldon made sure to devote a significant portion of the pictures to his wedding, because he believed that his wife was “the most beautiful bride on her wedding day that the world had ever seen”. On Sunday afternoon, a true gentleman was lost. Hopefully, his two young boys will learn from their mother just how caring a person he was.

Maybe still it’s so hard to grapple with the untimely death of a champion driver and person because of the connection. I’ve never been a part of organized racing in the sense that I have been a part of other sports, but racing has still had a tremendous impact on my life. I would list the infield at Michigan International Speedway and the infield at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as two of my favorite places in the world. Although I’m not a racer, the racing community is the connection that we as fans share with these drivers. With Dan Wheldon. When someone in your circle dies, everyone feels the reverberation, regardless of how you may be connected.

Hopefully, something good will come out of this tragedy. Wheldon was the development driver for the new chassis that the IndyCar Series will debut in 2012. In addition to that, if Wheldon’s death prompts series officials to reevaluate oval racing, he will have helped the sport just as Earnhardt’s death resulted in mandating the use of the HANS device.

Right now though, my thoughts go out to Wheldon’s family and friends. Like you all, I’ve had trouble coming to terms with the fact that the family man, the man who always had a huge smile on his face, the man whose accomplishments on the track will always pale in comparison to his personality to those who knew him best, is gone.

Maybe I and the rest of the auto racing world will never truly know the reasons why Dan Wheldon’s death is so difficult to get over. Maybe it doesn’t matter; he will be missed all the same.

I have three posters of Wheldon hanging on my bedroom wall, and as a tribute to a great racer and person, none of them will be coming down.

Rest in peace, Dan.

- K. Becks

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