Remembering Dan

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An 10-year old me meets Dan in 2004

My family is coming over today. This means I have to clean my room, a quick once-over to clear surfaces of dust to accommodate my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I move toward my bookshelf. A book autographed by NASCAR legend Donnie Allison topples over, a result of my shelf’s regurgitation due to over feeding. I sit the book upright, but the force of the others sends Allison’s autobiography down again. I try to find a makeshift bookend to end the battle. The set of 1:64 scale Dukes of Hazzard replica diecast will not do the trick. Nor will the framed picture of my grandfather and me a month or two before he died.

I reach for the heaviest non-paper item on my shelf. It is a set of lugnuts, all from the NASCAR powerhouse of Hendrick Motorsports. I attempt to stack the five lugnuts in a pyramid to test their abilities as bookends. It works. I suppose that if it can hold a wheel on an unwieldy stock car going at a 200 mph clip, it can muster the strength to keep a few books still.

The outside of the nut is yellow, its once bright sheen dulled by the wear and tear of motorsports. A pink residue clings to the bottom of the lugnut; it used to be the glue that mounted the nut to the wheel. The high-powered gun stripped the lugnut, the thread of the lugnut ground down, exposing the metal beneath the yellow finish.

*******

It was a Sunday morning in mid-October. My mom, dad, brother, and I sat around the table, eating breakfast. Today was not any ordinary day. It was the final race of the 2011 IndyCar season and the send-off for the series’ current car. The higher-ups at IndyCar’s 16th & Georgetown offices billed the race as spectacle not to miss. Thirty-four cars entered the race at the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway-one more starter than the Indy 500 traditionally sees.

Advertisements prominently featured Dan Wheldon, the two-time and then-defending Indianapolis 500 winner, the former IndyCar champion, and my favorite driver since he and I shared a moment together more than seven years earlier. Wheldon was running the race as a barnstormer of sorts. He had won the Indianapolis 500 five months earlier, but did not have a seat because of the cruel game of musical chairs that is a sad truth of racing.

Wheldon’s objective for Las Vegas was simple enough: win. He and one lucky fan would win $1 million if Wheldon could do the unthinkable and take victory starting from the final spot on the grid. Wheldon, in his charismatic way, seemed more than happy to take the challenge. His demeanor before the race would not indicate any sort of stress. Thousands of miles away, however, I was not feeling quite so optimistic.

“How do you think the race will go today, Mike?” my mom asked as I poked around my biscuits and gravy.

“I really don’t like this,” I said sheepishly. “Thirty-four cars are just too much. I don’t have a good feeling about this. This could be a bad day.”

********

The race started. I sat alone in my room watching the race, sitting cross-legged on the floor. My dad and brother watched the Colts game in the living room. My mom folded laundry in her room. The tension on-track was palpable. Cars scurried around the track, trying to make best of the limited real estate.

The tenth lap had just begun. The broadcasters shifted their focus to Wheldon and his potential for a huge payday. As the field came around for the eleventh circuit, the ABC broadcast showed Wheldon’s onboard camera. In less than ten seconds, Dan Wheldon would be dead at age thirty-four.

********

“Oh my God. Holy shit!” I yelled from my room. The Colts had just tossed an interception, so my exclamation went unheard in the living room.

I staggered out of my room affected by what I had just seen. I did not know who was involved in the wreck, but I immediately registered the potential for loss of life. I could barely muster a whisper, but I told my dad to turn the television to the race.

The aftermath of the crash looked cataclysmic. Shards of carbon fiber and suspension assemblies lined the banking of the track. After a replay moments later, my dad echoed the same shocked obscenities I had mutter earlier. A graphic comes on the screen, noting the drivers who caught up in what could be lightly called a collision. I sighed as I saw Dan Wheldon’s #77 appear towards the end of the list.

The next three hours were absolute Hell on Earth. I, along with thousands of other IndyCar fans, took to Twitter, desperate for an update on one of the sport’s most charismatic champions. Gossip spread as it does in a social media platform. A genuine-appearing parody account of Ashley Judd, the actress formerly married to multiple-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, said Wheldon was being treated for minor burns, but would be all right. A bona-fide Associated Press report posted a picture of anxious paramedics loading limp, blanket-covered body aboard a medical helicopter while intubating the patient.

In the uncertainty in the ensuing hours, race fans and drivers prepared for the worst, but prayed for the best. I paced around the house and fidgeted in my seat. It felt like sitting in a waiting room, thought the hospital was on the other side of the country.

At around 7:00 PM on the east coast, the proverbial doctor walked out with the bad news, as IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard sat down for a press conference. Choking on his words, Bernard said what we all feared, but knew deep down: Dan Wheldon was dead. Bernard also announced that IndyCar cancelled the race and the remaining drivers in the race would take their cars around the track for a tribute to Wheldon.

Sobbing drivers hugged their families, friends, and colleagues as they strapped in their cars. The drivers strapped on their helmets, their countenance making it clear that they were not ready to go back out on the race course that just took the life of their brother-in-arms. As the drivers rolled out onto the circuit, they grouped up into the rows of three traditional to the Indianapolis 500, the race that had defined Wheldon six years earlier.

As the cars circle the track, I felt a surge of emotion, one that would change my life forever. My hero was dead. Perhaps it was the fact that the bagpipe-laden rendition of “Amazing Grace” reminded me of Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan. Maybe thinking about Wheldon’s two young sons and his widow struck a chord with me. Nevertheless, I think it was a feeling of shame and self-loathing that turned me into a sobbing mess. How could I devote so much time and energy in a sport that could be so cruel? One where a single mistake meant not just the agony of defeat, but death, the ultimate defeat.

Wrapped with guilt, I questioned my entire life. For the bulk of my life, I had wanted nothing more than to be a reporter in open wheel and sports car circles. How could I go to work each day, making a living off innocent men and women slogging it out, waiting for their luck to run out? Did I really want to make a living off that barbaric tiding?

As I sat alone in my room, not only mourning my fallen hero, but also pondering my very existence, I picked up a lugnut from the nearby bookshelf. I ran my fingers across the nut, its cold, metallic surface grown down from the abuse of a high-PSI impact wrench. I felt a strange sort of sympathy for the lugnut. It is worn, it is beaten, but it still must do it job. Despite its injuries, it must hold the tire on the car, a duty taken for granted by some yet vitally important. I know the questions I will face tomorrow at school. People know that I loved Wheldon and IndyCar racing. They also know that few (if anyone) at Brownsburg High School would have more expertise on the subject of the crash than I would. I must answer their questions, a job that many do not give a second thought, but one whose absence would be notable.

*********

The day after Dan Wheldon’s death, I went to school, and as expected, I answered questions about the accident, in spite of my own personal torment. In the coming weeks, I would decide to keep writing about the sport I Iove, though the fear and anxiety that came with Wheldon’s death was still there. I interviewed racing figures for my high school newspaper, with the thought of life’s fleeting nature for racers in the back of my head. The story that resulted, as well as my altered perception of the world, a string of strong stories, paving the path for me to become “Staff Member of the Year,” and accepted into IUPUI.

********

It is the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in 2012. I graduated from Brownsburg High School two days ago. For most eighteen year-olds, this is the crowning moment of their young lives. However, two days later, I one-upped myself, relegating graduation to a mere afterthought in my mind. Today was the day I will attend my first Indianapolis 500. Seven months after the reigning champion of the event passed away, the IndyCar Series makes its return to motorsport’s hallowed grounds to celebrate tradition of the world’s greatest race and the life of a departed friend.

********

In the months following Wheldon’s death, both IndyCar racing and I had changed for the better. IndyCar released its new car, much safer than the last generation. As I grew as a person and a writer, IndyCar added improvements to the new car might have saved Dan Wheldon’s life on that fateful October day. In his memory of the man who helped developed the car, car builder Dallara and IndyCar dubbed the new chassis the “DW12.” The new car added a layer of excitement to both the series and the intrigue Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The tension was palpable.

As I sat in the grandstand on the frontstretch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I pondered the past seven months. When the prerace ceremonies started, Wheldon’s friend, teammate, and car owner Bryan Herta fired up the car Wheldon had brought to victory just a year prior, circling the track in a white and orange car numbered 98.

Though “Amazing Grace” did not ring out across the public address system as it had in Las Vegas a few months earlier, the same emotions I felt the previous October came to a head. So much had changed that it would be impossible to be void of emotions upon the realization. As the tears ran down my cheek on the steamy May day, I wondered to myself if change, regardless how painful it is, ends up being for the best at the end of the day.

If Dan Wheldon did not die on that October day, IndyCar might not have reconsidered the safety of the sport, perhaps after the death of another driver. For me, the tribulations helped me find an inner strength and show me how much I really loved car racing.

I thought again of the Hendrick Motorsports lugnut I held seven months earlier, once again pondering the similarities. Just like a car missing a lugnut, without the catalyst for change, we do not truly know how much we need it.

Note: This post is an altered version of an essay written for an IUPUI English class. It got an “A” if you were wondering.

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