It seems no matter how you chose to talk about Dan Wheldon, you always talked about him in the best way possible.
Dan was one of the good guys, a born driver, gifted with as much talent as he had compassion. He was one of the 'good guys' of IndyCar, always there for his fans, his family, and his friends in and out of the car.
We lost Dan six years ago to an accident that could have been avoided. We lost him in 'the big one.' The kind of wreck that all oval drivers fear, fifteen cars slamming into one another on a high banked, flat out, short oval that had no right hosting thirty-four IndyCars.
Wheldon preparing for a race. Photo Credit: Road and Track
I remember exactly where I was on that October day in 2011. I remember it vividly.
I was on vacation. I had just walked in from a football game on the beach when I check my phone, which to my surprise, was exploding with texts and calls from friends asking about what was happening in the IndyCar race at Las Vegas. I had forgotten the race was on (I still made it a semi-rule to boycott watching the races that were holdovers from the IRL). I flicked on the TV and my heart sank.
I didn't need to see the replay. The racetrack looked like a battle zone with cars littered everywhere and the catch-fence hanging loosely to the support poles. I knew what had to have happened and my only question was 'who?'
When I found out it was Dan, I wept. We had lost one of the best that day. We lost the driver at whom I'd screamed my head off during that year's 500 as he made the most unlikely of passes to win the race. We lost Dan.
I had been in turn four that year. I had seen JR Hildebrand make an ill-fated move on the outside of Charlie Kimball. Hildebrand made the move and we stood up, knowing exactly what was going to happen. And we cheered. We cheered so hard for Dan as he passed Kimball down the main stretch. We hugged each other in the stands, ecstatic that we'd just witnessed history and just as happy that Dan had won again.
But now he was gone.
But it wasn't Dan's death that defined him. Despite the fact that his crash at Las Vegas ushered in the kind of sweeping safety changes that allowed for driver after driver to walk away from even the most terrifying of collisions, Dan's death is not what endears him to those of us that love IndyCar.
No, Dan was something special. He was an Englishman, born and raised in a small town call Emberton. He started karting at age 4 and went toe to toe with likes of such drivers as Jensen Button, with whom he started a fierce karting rivalry.
But unlike the world champion to be, Dan made the jump across the pond, diving in the IndyCar feeder series. And it was there that he found his home.
In 2002 he made it into the premiere series and never looked back. It's easy to rattle off his accomplishments (2005 and 2011 Indy 500 winner, 2005 IRL Champion, race win after race win), but that would take away from the person Dan was. Yes, he was an amazing driver, but what him special was the fact that he was wholeheartedly and unequivocally Dan.
Buddy Rice, Dan Wheldon, and Vitor Mira share a joke at another driver's expense. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Simon Bruty
Dan's passion and enthusiasm about the sport he so loved were infectious. Teammates, mechanics, engineers, everybody wanted to do their best around Dan because his love of driving was so damn infectious.
He was part of the so called 'group of hoodlums' who terrorized the IndyCar paddock with practical jokes for years. He was a devoted family man with two young boys and a wife whom he absolutely adored. He was the best friend to everyone in the paddock, when I say no one had an ill word against him, I mean no one had an ill word against him. But most of all, at least most important to those of us who watch the sport from the stands, Dan always made time for us. There was never a time he turned away a fan for an autograph or a conversation. No kid ever walked away from Dan Wheldon without a free hat or T-Shirt, just as no adult ever walked away without a great story to tell.
And the stories are numerous. But the one that I think describes him best is a story I read the other day. Once a fan meet him at a race and addressed him as, 'Mr. Wheldon.' Dan smiled and responded, "Mr. Wheldon is back in England. I'm just Dan."
Because that's who he was. He was just Dan. He contributed to our sport greatly in his short time on earth, but his greatest contributions weren't on the racing circuit. No, they were by him simply being Dan, one hell of a driver who was an even better human being.