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.On the 12th lap, the accident happened. As fast as everything unfolded in the moment of impact, it was almost a prolonged, slow motion period of shock that swept through the pit.
In my headset, the radio transmissions went from “Big wreck, go low, go low!” to “Oh my God,” to “Dan, do you have a copy?”
I didn't want to fear the worst for two reasons. First, Dan hadn't said a word on the radio in the first 10 laps anyway – his total focus was on that racetrack, and he'd already made up 10 spots from his starting position. And second, we still weren't sure if he was involved.
Because the impact had so many cars flying, some on fire and debris scattered through Turn 2 like a bomb had gone off, there was no clear indication the No. 77 was even caught up in the melee. There wasn't a replay shown for several minutes on the big screen behind us. It seemed likely his car was involved, but we didn't know for sure.
Wanting something to focus on, I looked up at the scoring pylon and took notes of – and later tweeted – the numbers of the cars that appeared to be involved.
A couple minutes, maybe five – time stood still – passed before Edwards asked again whether Dan had a copy. The initial report – and the only one concerning Wheldon's condition I heard on the radio – was that he was out of the car. But whether he'd climbed out himself, that wasn't elaborated on. Some Twitter users had posted that IMS Radio had said all drivers were out of their cars and OK, but I had my doubts.
After the second no reply, it became obvious to me that this was a more serious situation than met the eye. I turned in my headset, gave my best to Schmidt's PR liaison, and walked to the paddock.
The time in the paddock couldn't have been more depressing, with charred remains of cars coming back on flatbeds and shocked drivers trickling in. Jay Howard and Power both came back on golf carts looking somewhat stunned, as did Wade Cunningham.
Once back in the media center, after at least checking to see if the people I could talk to were all right, it was a matter of waiting while somehow knowing, even if we didn't want to know. A bank of TV cameras setting up around the interview podium represented strike two. Then, sadly, but not unexpectedly, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard revealed the news.
Countless others have been fortunate enough to cover this sport far longer than I have – this is only my third month as web editor for RACER after several years freelancing for other motorsports outlets – so I'm by no means the best person to offer anything more than a brief tribute. But in my short time with RACER, I feel incredibly blessed to have spent time with Dan on two occasions. Obviously there was Las Vegas, but the first was at Infineon Raceway, when I was invited to a press outing by SimRaceway, which was set to announce a new partnership with the Jim Russell Racing School, with Dan as a spokesperson.
And for me, that meant getting to race sitting next to Dan in a simulator. As in, yes, I was racing against the Indianapolis 500 champion! Believe me, I was proud to get within two or three seconds of his time.
The amazing thing is that, although we'd only just met, the guy genuinely connected and treated me like a longtime friend, not just some journalist he was obliged to race against on a simulator.
Dan and I talked at that point about the risks of racing and what it's like to run at 220mph-plus at tracks like Vegas. He acknowledged the risk of running the big ovals, but lit up when discussing how he was able to do this for a living. At that point, he hinted he had a 2012 deal in the works, but it wasn't confirmed.
“It's very intimidating and, for me personally, it's harder to relate because I'm used to it,” he said. “But it's a feeling that I love. It never scares you, but there's the appreciation of living on the edge and knowing what could happen if it goes wrong. It's certainly an adrenaline rush.”
I really wish those words weren't so eerily prophetic. I can only offer my thoughts and prayers for his wife Susie, their two sons, and the rest of that family.
Thank you so much, Dan, for what you did for this sport, this community…and for this young scribe.