Four days before he died, Dan Wheldon sat next to me on a couch reflecting on a year in which he started out unemployed, won the Indianapolis 500, then went back to the unemployment line to look for a job. I expected a bittersweet tone. Instead I got classic Dan Wheldon, ever the grounded optimist.
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"It's been incredibly enjoyable," he said with complete sincerity. "My wife gave birth to our second son, Oliver, and I was able to enjoy spending time with them because I didn't have a ride."
Wheldon died Sunday in a violent 15-car wreck at the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The native of Great Britain was 33 years old. He'll be remembered as much for his engaging personality off the track as his dominating skills on it.
Wheldon was airlifted to a local hospital and IndyCar officials halted the race for more than two hours. When word spread that Wheldon had died, drivers decided not to race, returning to their cars only for a five-lap tribute.
"There are no words for today," Danica Patrick said via Twitter. "Myself and so many others are devastated."
Perhaps nothing explained Wheldon better than his ability to find peace and perspective in the midst of such an inexplicable season. Here was an out-of-work driver who couldn't land a decent job in a series in which he was a champion, in which he'd won the sport's signature event, the Indianapolis 500. It doesn't sound fair because it's not, but that's how it works sometimes in auto racing, where sponsor dollars trump talent.
Wheldon got a ride in the Indy 500 only because friend and team owner Bryan Herta was able to put together a competitive deal. Still, no one gave Wheldon a shot to win it until he actually did. The next day, he was unemployed again.
But not bitter.
He used the time off as an opportunity to promote the sport that wouldn't give him a full-time job. When he won the Indy 500 back in 2005, he hit up David Letterman, did a few other promotional events, then went back to racing the next weekend. After this year's win, with no job, he made appearance after appearance after appearance. He worked television broadcasts of IndyCar events, became an ambassador for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and served as the official test driver for the new race car the series will unveil next season.
He was happy, content, smiling like he was in love.
"It's been a crazy year," he said, "but really, really enjoyable."
The tragic irony is Wheldon was only racing Sunday because of a promotion. Earlier this year as a way to bring attention to the fledgling series, CEO Randy Bernard put up a $5 million award to any non-series regular who could win the finale. As a non-regular, Wheldon was eligible.
One condition was that he start at the back of the 34-car field, a huge deficit to overcome, but one Wheldon said could be done in the 200-lap race. Just 12 laps in, two cars touched in front of him, setting off a horrific chain reaction of events that Patrick described as straight out of a movie.
Wheldon, having moved up some 10 spots already, couldn't slow in time. His car launched over the back of one in front of him, turned in midair and slammed into the catch fence. Rescue workers were quick to the scene, but neither they nor doctors at a local hospital could save him.
"IndyCar is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon passed away from unsurvivable injuries," Bernard announced at a news conference. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Dan and his family."
Wheldon came from Emberton, a small village in southern England where he was tearing up go-kart tracks at age four. In 1999, at age 21, he came to the United States and eventually wound up in IndyCar. With powerhouse Andretti Green Racing, he won nine races as well as the 2005 IndyCar championship. That same year, Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500, handing team owner Michael Andretti the Brickyard win he never got as a driver.
Most recently Wheldon drove for Panther Racing. At the end of the 2010 season, Panther signed rookie J.R. Hildebrand to replace him, leaving Wheldon without a job.
Refusing to take a mediocre ride that could threaten the integrity of his career, Wheldon opted to sit out the season. Desperate to enter this year’s Indianapolis 500, Wheldon called Bryan Herta for advice on finding a good ride for the 500. Herta responded, "Would you consider driving for me?"
Wheldon never led the race until he came around the final turn of the final lap. But when the leader wrecked on the final turn, Wheldon took the lead and the win – his second at the Brickyard. The driver he passed for the victory? Hildebrand.
Last Wednesday, Wheldon told me he was close to signing a full-time deal for 2012.
"I don't need to drive for financial gain," he said. "I could retire and be OK. There are a lot of people in way worse situations than me right now."
Sunday morning, Wheldon reportedly had agreed to terms to return to the Andretti stable where he would replace the departing Patrick.
Hours later he was gone, leaving a legacy of racing and life behind.
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