16 October 2011

IndyCar Loses a Piece of Its Heart with Dan Wheldon's Passing

It was supposed to be the culmination a weeklong party for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Instead, it turned tragic, ironically taking the life of a driver who was the life of many parties.
Dan Wheldon was vital part of IZOD IndyCar Series' heartbeat. He took the characteristics fans loved most about the series and embodied nearly all of them.
The bat out of hell driving style? Wheldon could be counted on to drive as fast as possible, no matter the situation. Sunday, he was tasked with the challenge of passing 33 cars to win $5 million. No sweat for Wheldon, who had passed 10 cars at the time of the wreck that took his life.
Appreciation of history? Wheldon understood Indianapolis and had nearly mastered the track, winning twice and recording two runner-up finishes. In 2011, he took an underfunded team and helped guide and inspire them throughout the month, becoming the first man to lead one lap - the final lap - in winning the Indianapolis 500.
After the win, and without enough funding to run more, Wheldon was part of the pioneering spirit of IndyCar, serving as the test driver for the 2012 IndyCar safety cell and aero kit. Now, that work will be Wheldon's lasting legacy in the series; no one will be able to look at the car without remembering Weldon's work this summer. 
In a series that saw its share of drivers moving on "to bigger and better things," Wheldon never made noise about leaving the series, even when it was apparent he would be a part-time driver in 2011. That willingness to stay and promote the sport was admired by many, and Wheldon's tenure in the series provided fans with the ability to watch Wheldon grow up in the sport.
Wheldon entered the series as a young, brash, talented Englishman. Within two years, he had captured his first Indianapolis 500 trophy and was seemingly on top of the sport. Constantly with a smile on his face, Wheldon's grin always seemed to hint at mischief.
Constantly in search of fun, Wheldon formed quite the quartet with Andretti-Green teammates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. The group was legendary for its camaraderie, pranks and generally having a great time every weekend, no matter the circumstances. Any twenty-something male could relate to that experience, and Wheldon's celebrity within the series increased troughout the decade. (I'll admit to being a 22-year old cheering for Wheldon in 2003-05 in part because of of his Jim Beam sponsorship). 
By the turn of the decade, though, Wheldon had learned something else that endeared him to fans: humility. After an ultimately disappointing run with Target Chip Ganassi, Wheldon returned to Panther Racing, finishing runner-up in the 500 in both 2009 and 2010.
Still, this season brought with its own trials, as it was Herta who brought in Wheldon as a one-off entry for the 500. His willingness to drive for Herta, while competing with the Ganassis and Penskes was remarkable, and his win in May will always be one of the most memorable moments in the 100-year history of IMS. 
With a wife and two young sons, Wheldon had clearly matured from the 2005 Indianapolis 500 champion, just as most young men tend to do in their early 30's.
It's safe to say Wheldon got "it." For those of us who work in sports, a realization exists that we're working in the toy factory. Wheldon understood that - his joy at being involved in IndyCar was apparent in every interview.

A piece of the IndyCar Series - it's joy at getting to go out and push the limits of speed, man and machine - is gone. But Wheldon's spirit touched so many that the series will go on, albeit with heavy hearts for quite some time.