Oh Danny Boy: 10 Things to Remember About Dan Wheldon
The pain of losing someone who touched your life is great and possibly greater when that person is so young when they die. Dan Wheldon will be remembered in many ways in the coming days. I cannot claim close personal friendship, but all of us in racing collectively form a community, and when one of us and when one of us goes like Dan went, we all grieve together, from Shelley Unser in Albuquerque to Jenson Button in Korea, our loss would be completely unbearable if we didn’t have one another with whom to share it.
In time, we will not think as often as we do today of one Daniel Clive Wheldon, race car driver. Because of this, it seems only fitting that I take a moment to tell you ten things to remember about Dan Wheldon:
• He was a charmer. The first time I met him, in 2001, he had placed second at the last CART sanctioned Indy Lights race in Long Beach. Not content to just answer questions from the press conference stage, Dan worked the press room like an old pro. Everyone who was there remembered his name and knew he was going places. As a footnote, the winner of that race was Townsend Bell, who was also part of the driver lineup for Dan’s last race in Las Vegas.
• He was a bit of a dandy. He claimed to have more clothes than his wife, Susie, and that he needed more closet space than she did. Dan was rumored to have more shoes than Imelda Marcos, and every time I saw him, he looked put together. Not your typical racer was our Dan.
• He had quite an unusual smile. It was always warm and engaging, but after getting some cosmetic dentistry done in the late 2000’s, his teeth were whiter than white. I often put on my sunglasses when interviewing him so I wouldn’t be blinded, something that would usually make Dan laugh.
• He won two Indy 500s. (And the second one was completely out of the blue). At his 2011 Long Beach press conference, he said a win at Indy was completely possible, and meant it. When he passed rookie driver J.R. Hildebrand for the lead on the final lap of the 500, he was probably the only one who was not surprised. Ironically, Hildebrand had taken over Dan’s seat at Panther Racing, and some saw the win as poetic justice. Not me! Wheldon had the experience to let the race come to him.
• He was intense. There are probably other words to describe what he was, but his commitment to a goal was total and absolute. Around the paddock, some saw him as difficult, as a prima donna, although if you tried to find out who those people were now, no one would tell you. For him to be the champion that he was, and without having a wealthy family to back him, he had to be many things, but he had to be intense to do what he did in the time he had.
• He hated not having a ride in 2011. Don’t believe what he said about deciding to take off to be with Susie and the boys. Oh, he did appreciate the time he had with them, no doubt. But it killed him to not be running with one of Indycar’s top teams during 2011, in what would be his final season, and I don’t use that verb carelessly. His entire focus was on getting a ride for 2012, which according to Robin Miller, he had secured right before he died.
• As Dario Franchitti said, he was a family man. I never published my last interview with him because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. We talked about how wonderful it is to be a parent and how incredibly lucky anyone is to have a partner they truly love. It will come as no surprise to Mrs. Dan Wheldon that he adored Oliver and Sebastian and thought he was the luckiest of men to be Mr. Susie Behm.
• He didn’t deserve to die the way he did. And I don’t mean that in a trite way. I mean it in; there is obviously no one at IndyCar who can really look out for those drivers way. Some of us have written about it, some of us have tried calling the leadership of the series about it, and now someone has died and it illustrates how true that is and how ineffectual all those efforts have been. IndyCar let me make it easy for you. 34 cars on a one and a half mile speedway = no good. Flat out racing with no margin for error in open wheel cars = no good. We need Beaux Barfield, Steve Horne, or someone else with these men’s good qualities to provide leadership for racing competition. And, it’s already too late, so for God’s sake; don’t drag your feet on this one.
• He died in a publicity stunt. Really. Well, Dan’s death was front page news. Now it’s time to pay that $5 million to Dan’s family. When racing “stars” were not inclined to show up and run at the Vegas race, someone came up with the brilliant idea to have Dan race from the back of the field and get lots of attention for Indy Car. Dan delivered. It’s time to pay the piper, folks.
• He was a champion. He was a series champion, he was an Indy 500 champion, and as a person, in every way, Dan Wheldon was a champion. If you can remember nothing else of him, remember Dan as a champion.
Oh, and one more thing. I really don’t want to hear one more person say “he died doing what he loved doing”. Yeah, but he still died, and if we could ask him if he’d rather hang around for another 50 years and be with his family, but die an old man, and not doing what he loved, do you really think he’d choose to die young? Really?
Good bye, Danny boy, you will be missed!