The nature of immediacy in this business means that after Dan Wheldon's fatal accident this past Sunday, obituaries, tributes, photo galleries, videos and tweets aplenty abound from everywhere. Considering how raw the emotion still is within the community, many were simply outstanding.
Given I had to post to-the-point fact pieces in the immediate aftermath, adding a rushed and hurried obituary wouldn't have fit – especially as my assignment for the weekend made me remember my fan side while still wearing my journalist shoes.
Going into the weekend, my task was to have a daily catch up with Dan on how things were going, and then follow the race itself from his team's pit, listening in on their radio traffic. The end result would have been a diary-type story to run in the next issue of RACER magazine.
You know the back story. Dan was on a quest to capture a $5 million prize from Go Daddy that would be split between him and a randomly selected fan, with the caveat that he would have to start from the rear of the field regardless of where he qualified his Sam Schmidt Motorsports-entered Dallara-Honda.
As it turned out, he might not have started much farther up than 34th in the 34-car field anyway because, out of nowhere, the SSM team was struggling to find speed.
Rather than noting how strong the car could be in race trim with the highest level of downforce, the angle shifted to chronicling the improvements the Schmidt crew – led by team manager Rob Edwards – would have to make to Dan's No. 77 entry. Chatting with me while walking between his seemingly endless other media commitments, Dan admitted on Thursday that he was befuddled as to where the speed had gone.
“To be 100 percent honest, we were completely struggling for speed,” he said. “But I know the guys are going to work hard, and there's some stuff we just have to figure out in a very short period of time. (Friday) is going to be a difficult day. It's reasonable (in the draft), but from an overall pace standpoint, it's very hard for me to keep up.”
Things didn't improve in Friday's practice session or in qualifying. Dan's car clocked in ahead of only three other drivers who set times – although two drivers didn't make a qualifying attempt and a third had his time disallowed. Whatever, the stage was set for a full-on charge through the field from P34 on Sunday.
“We don't understand why we're so far off the pace,” he said. “Quite frankly, the pace we're at, there's something we're missing. The team is working so hard at it. It's just a long ways off. Everyone's very confused.”
Saturday's off day saw him once again morph back into “emcee Dan” from “driver Dan” – in an absolutely seamless manner. If there was anything his stint as an analyst and part-time “grid walker” with Robin Miller on Versus proved, it was that he had a natural ability to take us inside the sport with his easy-going, but hugely insightful way of getting things across. It was astute and engaging, but definitely not as easy as he made it look.
Fielding a variety of questions translated into English from translation service Ortsbo, Dan took over the stage in a natural give-and-take with championship contenders Dario Franchitti and Will Power (RIGHT). After a brief interview with the event sponsor, we chatted – while walking again – and he exuded his trademark passion.
“That was pretty cool!” he said of the event. “The goal is to attract more people to the IndyCar Series on a worldwide basis and these types of events are great for that.”
Dan, whose fragmented 2011 season had seen him become as much an ambassador for the sport as a driver, was targeted to do the same MC role for at least five similar events in the 2012 season, I was told.
Come Sunday, I saw him briefly on pit road before the morning systems check. Smiling, I gave him a thumbs-up and he smiled back.
As the 34 cars rolled off pit road and got set to go green for the first time, I checked into the team's pit, put on the headset and readied myself to monitor Dan's progress.