Editor's note: This story was originally originally published October 17, 2011 on SPEED.com.
My iPhone lit up last Tuesday.
Jet-lagged after a 23.5-hour door-to-door flight back from covering the Bathurst 1000 race in Australia, and in my usual morning stupor, I looked over and saw the name ‘Dan Wheldon' pop up on the display.
“Hey, is this the famous international motorsports reporter?” he asked.
Filled with pride for what I perceived was Wheldon's recognition of my work Down Under, I started to reply, “Thanks, Danny Boy, I…” before he interrupted me.
“Wait a minute…who is this?” he said.
I replied, “It's Marshall.”
“Oh, my bad,” said Wheldon, “I was trying to call Robin Miller… Hahahahahahaha…”
After a good 30 seconds of laughing at me (“I got you to bite on that one pretty good, mate…”), Wheldon
— thoroughly pleased with himself for executing a perfect bait-and-switch — fell into the familiar tone and tenor of a man whose life had taken a sharp turn for the better.
He'd gone from being unemployed and on the sidelines of the sport one year ago to unexpected Indy 500 winner, to IndyCar's official test driver for the new 2012 car, to Danica Patrick's replacement at Andretti Autosport, to the man vying for $2.5 million last weekend at Las Vegas.
At 33 years old, Wheldon was in the midst of an epic rebirth — reclaiming a career that had been derailed by two frustrating years at Panther Racing, and poor showing the year before that at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
With the path recently cleared for another five to 10 years of IndyCar racing, Dan Wheldon, two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar Series champion, was on his way back to where he belonged.
The indescribable sadness that comes with his loss at Las Vegas, however, has nothing to do with the death of an athlete — a champion driver.
I don't write very many ‘I' pieces, but with a flight headed back to Australia just hours away for this weekend's Gold Coast 600 event, and knowing that plenty of other writers will have the time to produce more polished and eloquent remembrances of Dan, I'll do my best to put his death in whatever context I can under the circumstances.
- I've been affected by death at the racetrack, like most in the sport, and on more than one occasion. I've had a driver die in a car I prepared — suffered a massive coronary. I've seen drivers killed in crashes directly in front of me. I've seen Indy car stars and future champions cut down in their prime. I've cleaned copious amounts of my driver's blood off of the sidepod of an Indy car. And in all of those instances, I was saddened, shocked or stunned. But I never cried. The loss of those men, however tragic, was filtered and processed internally as the loss of athletes. It took getting away from the Las Vegas track on Sunday for the gravity of Dan's death to hit home. Sitting at my gate in the McCarran International Airport, of all places, I started to cry in front of complete strangers. On the short flight home from Las Vegas to the Bay Area, the reason for my belated tears became obvious: losing Dan Wheldon — bon vivant, friend, character, jokester, beaming source of light and warmth — was the real tragedy. What the world of racing lost at Las Vegas pales in comparison to what world-at-large surrendered on Sunday.
- I clicked with Dan because he was what my father called ‘A lover of a person.' Wheldon, especially once he got married and had children, breathed life into whatever he touched, described or whomever he came in contact with. Compared to some of the dark and brooding types in the IndyCar paddock, Wheldon made no effort to hide the sheer joy and blessings that filled his life. He was a lover of what he had, what he did and what was yet to come.
- I mourn for his wife, Susie, and sons, Oliver and Sebastien. I mourn for his family — most of whom were in attendance at Las Vegas to watch him run for the big payday.
- I want Wade Cunningham, who mistakenly triggered the crash, to know that no one — with a sane mind or grasp of the sport — blames him. Dan's loss isn't your fault, son. Don't internalize this.
- I'm heartbroken for Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. They grew so incredibly close to Greg Moore — became inseparable, and lost him in similar circumstances at the season finale in 1999. More than a decade later, and after feeling the enduring sting of Greg's death, Dario and TK are suffering through the same thing again with the loss of Dan, who had become a little brother to them — a new best friend and helped to fill the void left by Moore. Losing one's best friend, on two occasions and in violent crashes is a cruel, cruel twist.