We headed toward the last race of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in good spirits. I had high hopes for winning that race in a grand fashion. Instead, that Sunday was the day that changed the way so many of us look at the world of professional motorsports. That was the day of the horrific 15-car crash, 11 laps into the race that stole away our friend and my Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate, Dan Wheldon.
There is so much emotion around the events that unfolded that weekend and the build up to the big race, including the “Go Daddy Challenge” that was to see Dan racing for the $5m prize pool with my team in the No. 77 car. It's still so hard for us to think about that day; so much deep sadness wells up inside when we think of what happened. There are so many questions to answer: What should we have done differently? What started it all? Was it preventable?
I think I have watched the replays over 100 times trying to process it all and what I am left with is an unsurpassable passion to right the wrong, to fight for change and to make this sport safer. Racing is in my blood – it pumps through my veins and it fuels me everyday to a higher level. I want to compete. But I admit that this accident has shaken me to the core and left me numb and wishing we could have that day to start over.
But for now, I just want to take the opportunity to talk about the Dan I knew, the funny and appreciative guy who respected his fellow drivers and knew how to have a good laugh, just long enough to flash his pearly whites before beating you across the finish line with a wink and a twinkle in his eye.
At the Indy 500 this year, Dan was my teammate. There was a technical partnership between SSM and Bryan Herta Autosport. We worked together all month to get those cars fast…and damn were they fast! Indy 500 pole for me and Indy 500 race win for Dan.
He was such a meticulous driver but great at sharing information, too, and I had helped him with his helmet position in the cockpit and also convinced him to switch to Arai helmets for the first time. He was so interested in everything, even fascinated by my tattoos. I have my wife Bronte's name tattooed on my arm in Chinese characters and I don't know, but maybe it triggered an idea for him, because the morning of the Vegas race he had the tattoo of SW on his wrist in honor of his wife Susie, and was proud to show it to me as soon as we arrived at the track.
He was my “little brother from another mother.” I'm always calling people “brother” – it's just like British people saying, “Hey mate!” – and we appreciated each other's similar sense of humor. We just got each other, so I gave him that nickname at the Indy 500 and it stuck.
We had also done the karting winter tour together, so I saw him a lot at those tracks. Being in a kart was a great way for both of us to stay fit, physically and mentally. Dan always loved karting and was very competitive, but it was also a great way for him to relax and have some fun while the professional racing season wasn't going on.
Vegas will always be a bittersweet place for me now. Having lived there for 10 years and gaining many friends there, I have many fond memories. Unfortunately, I now have one permanent slash across my heart that also makes me hope I never have to go back.
I think after everything that happened in Vegas, after all the time I was able to spend with Dan and the special memories and moments that we shared together, I want the final message to read:
“I love you, my little brother from another mother. You always were the true champion, the true lionheart and you will always be with us. We will race to honor your legacy, we will hold your memory close to our hearts and we will think of you with a smile and a wink, knowing you are watching.”