They often say that time heals all wounds, but it was obvious the uncertainty was still delivering a piercing dagger deep below Dan Wheldon’s skin.
Maybe it hadn’t bothered him much back then as it did on May 6th, 2011. On that day, Dan Wheldon was giving pace-car rides to teenage drivers that were part of the “2011 Mazda Road to Indy” clinic. I was lucky enough, with our station’s intern Courtney Cronin, to be able to join the 32 year-old Wheldon on one of the rides.
Just in our short time spent, I could sense he was much different from the Dan Wheldon I had watched when I had first become a fan of IndyCar.
After all, at age 28, the up-and-coming superstar of Ganassi Racing was on the fast track to super stardom in the sport of IndyCar. The combination of his good looks, shoulder length flowing hair, and British accent combined with his nose for the finish line would eventually lead to him being one of the greats in the sport.
And on May 28th, 2006, Dan Wheldon was laying down the bricks to Indianapolis Motor Speedway greatness. After winning the race in 2005, Wheldon was performing even better the following year, leading 148 of the total 200 laps in the race.
“I was nearly over-lapping Hornish,” said Wheldon. “I was in his draft to overtake him, but I ended up picking up a puncture. He ended up winning the race.”
On lap 184 Wheldon came across almost as much bad luck as one could have at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and was forced to pull into the pits due to a ruined tire, erasing his chances of returning to victory lane. The idea that it was “almost as much bad luck” of course comes becauseSam Hornish Jr. overtook a 19 year-old Marco Andretti by 0.0635 seconds.
One would think that Wheldon would quickly recover, and in some cases, he did. Wheldon continued to put up respectable race numbers through 2008, but couldn’t quite find the luck that a race driver in particular needs. By the time of the 2009 season he was replaced on the Ganassi Racing team for Dario Franchitti, and racing for the much smaller-owned Panther Racing squad.
As many champions who win young tell you, it’s often hard knowing what you are missing out on because you have tasted the victory champagne and felt the ultimate satisfaction of living your dreams. And of course, Wheldon is no different. So one could only imagine how badly it burned Wheldon inside to have over-achieved and finished second the following two years in the 2009 and 2010 Indianapolis 500’s.
“In 2009, we got everything out of the car we possibly could,” said Wheldon.
“In 2010, would have, could have, should have. You just never know. It’s always good to finish well at the Indianapolis 500, but as I said at the Oval Clinic, this race is very strange. You would think just because it is so difficult to win, that having won it once, you would be satisfied. But what I think this race does to you, it just makes you so hungry to win it again.”
But his two years at Panther Racing came with zero victories outside of the 500 as well, and now a much different Dan Wheldon found himself at a crossroads in life. Panther dropped him off of their team, and even through the start of the 2011 IndyCar season, the now 33 year-old found himself painting his home in Florida rather then racing against his peers. As competitive as Wheldon is, he admitted to loving becoming a normal man’s man, hanging around the house, spending time with his family, but his racing career couldn’t end like that.
After all, he still had some promises to keep.
“I promised my son that I wasn’t going to retire until I win one for him,” said Wheldon. “But now I’ve got two sons, so I have to do it for the two of them.”
But there’s a little known secret to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the idea that some drivers have found the uncanny knack to have great success on a constant basis. Yes, the track is known for being unfair and cruel to most, but a small handful have that sixth-sensed feel for the mecca of racetracks. So as if it was almost straight out of the Eminem song “Lose Yourself”, right on cue Wheldon found himself a team in Bryan Herta Autosport for the ride in this year’s race. It would be his first race of the 2011 season, his one shot, one opportunity.
And though Wheldon looked forward to this chance, you couldn’t help but sense this was a man that knew his great talents, but might have been running out of chances to show them off.
“I remember with 18 laps to go, I had a 19.2 second lead,” said Wheldon. “I was so sad.”
As he let out those words however, he was coming around turn-four to the homestretch, and though he didn’t admit it, the thoughts had crept back in. His body language, in a two second span, had given it all away. Wheldon quickly turned to his left, as if he envisioned 250,000 fans cheering him on in the grandstands. He then looked at his hand, where that second Herff Jones Champion of Champions ring would have been fitted, and he shook his head. He looked down for a brief moment, and lightly tapped the arm-rest.
But before he had shared the pain of his greatest defeat, he offered the advice to those who are coming around on that final turn of the Indianapolis 500 as champions.
“You don’t ever think like that,” said Wheldon. “As soon as you think like that, you better get back to concentrating. Because it can bite you so quick.”
On Sunday’s 100th anniversary of the 500, those words sang oh so true.
Just 23 days later, another rising star in 23-year-old Indianapolis 500 rookie J.R. Hildebrand was perhaps just 3,000 feet from winning the Indianapolis 500. But just like Wheldon’s bad luck in 2006, Hildebrand who had replace Wheldon on Panther Racing and with the National Guard sponsor, crashed into the turn, the right side of his car scraping into the wall, flummoxing forward to the finish line.
“I knew we were really tight on fuel coming to the end, and the spotters were in my ear saying, ‘The guys are coming and they’re coming hard,’ ” said Hildebrand, who qualified 12th (the fastest rookie). “We had to conserve a little fuel and the tires were coming to the end of their stint. I was hanging a little on to get the thing around.
“I made a judgment call catching up on the 83 (the lapped car driven by fellow rookie Charlie Kimball) and I thought I don’t really want to slow down behind him and pull out on the straightaway, and I’ve been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint. I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
But Hildebrand’s untimely rookie mistake cost him dearly. Perhaps that split second when his Panther racing pit crew was celebrating in unison, or when he didn’t want to play it safe because he was in the lead in which he didn’t want to let up, he found himself realizing just how close he was to winning. And if it were true, as Hildebrand would only know the truthful to answer to that, you couldn’t blame him for thinking about it. After all, he was literally looking straight ahead to the line of bricks the entire time.
But for Hildebrand’s misfortune, that vision of bricks quickly became an older veteran passing him by and checkered flags waving.
“I was just trying to go as hard as I could,” said Wheldon. “I knew it was the last lap and I knew some of those guys were struggling with fuel (he pitted on Lap 177). I’ve been runner-up two years before this, but I never gave up. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Wheldon, the man who’s one-shot opportunity with a one-day contract that expired at 12:00 a.m. May 30th, came screeching by in that same exact part of the track where out pace-car conversation had taken place. The second victory, the second ring, the 500 promised to the sons, were now all his.
And those daggers under the skin, on that day and perhaps now forever, didn’t seem to dig so deep anymore.