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|Jamie Little smiles with the late Dan Wheldon prior to the 2008 Indianapolis 500.|
As I sit here on a plane, headed to the funeral of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, my mind is racing. My stomach is turning. And my heart is heavy. I'm conflicted between tears of sadness and smiles from memories past.
We lost a good man last weekend.
|At a post-Indy 500 party in 2008 with, from left to right, Matt Cottrell, Dan's wife Susie, Danica Patrick and Dan. This picture has always been displayed in my home. Never before has it had such meaning.|
Dan was a confident yet endearing person. For one reason or another, I was drawn to him the first time we met back in 2004. He said something smart-alecky to me but followed it up with a big smile and a laugh. He had a way of doing that.
Not long after that first encounter, while doing an on-camera postrace report, Dan thought it would be a good idea to dump a bucket of ice down the back of my firesuit. I kept my composure while the camera was rolling, but as soon as it stopped I ran after him and put him in a playful headlock. He couldn't help himself. He just had a lot of fun.
And that was the beginning of memorable friendship. No matter the day or the racetrack, Daniel -- as I liked to call him -- made me laugh. He was everyone's little brother. Just ask Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti or Bryan Herta.
Dan was also one of the most genuinely inquisitive people I've ever known. He wanted to know your life story, your relationship status, the inner workings of your job. And once he got to know you, he never forgot you. He was a very thoughtful man. And I'll forever cherish the moments I was blessed to share with him.
|My last picture and memory with Dan. This was taken at Graham Rahal's, middle, charity go-kart event, just days before the Vegas race.|
Moments like his X Games visit, when I gave him the VIP tour and couldn't get him to stop talking about the parties.
And moments like the Wednesday before that tragic Vegas crash, when Dan and I participated in Graham Rahal's "Race for Research" charity go-kart event. We had both been busy since I covered his Indy 500 win in May, but we picked up right where we left off. During the driver briefing at the go-kart track, we sat in the back like two chatty girls, totally annoying the people around us but really wanting to catch up.
And for some reason, sitting there together laughing, we started to talk about the past. He looked at me and said, "Remember that time I wrecked and you tried to track me down for an interview? I angrily walked past you, so you grabbed my arm to stop me ..."
Of course I remembered. It was honestly the one instance in seven years of covering Dan and knowing him that I saw him get mad.
"I swung my arm away from you," Wheldon continued, "then turned around and laughed."
That was Dan. He quickly moved beyond his frustration, and even called me that next week to apologize. There was nothing for him to apologize for, but he just genuinely cared about people.
To Dan, there was more to life than racing. Despite being such a gifted champion, in many ways he was just a guy next door.
And I don't even know where to begin with the love of his life, Susie. A romance that appeared to happen overnight was actually a long love story in the making. Disguised as a "working relationship" for some time, the two were meant to be together. Once Dan realized what was right in front of him, he jumped in, becoming a happier, more focused man.
|This is from the IndyCar Series cruise in 2005. It was Halloween and Dan and Tony Kanaan, left, were doing their best female impersonations.|
Susie and Dan's sons, Sebastian and Oliver, were the best things that ever happened to Dan. As my heart breaks for his family, I feel such comfort in knowing that at his time of death, Dan was the happiest he's ever been in life. Life was right where he dreamed it would be. He may have been taken from us too soon, but his legacy will live on.
It's with a new generation of race car -- and Dallara chassis -- debuting at his home track in St. Petersburg, Fla., next March.
It's with the Borg-Warner Trophy, reminding fans of his great success as a two-time winner of the biggest race in the world.
It's with his friends, who are all great people just like he was.
And it's with his two little boys as they grow up.
While you grieve the loss of a passionate son, father, brother, husband and driver, I hope you can also celebrate the fierce champion we call Lionheart.
May we always remember Dan Wheldon.