Dan Wheldon’s death in yesterday’s Indycar season finale has cast a black cloud over both the series and motorsport as a whole. At a time when some go so far as to suggest that racing has become too safe it was a stark reminder of the danger top-line drivers put themselves in to pursue their passion and the devastating human consequences that ensue when something does go wrong.
Wheldon was a star both on and off the track. The Englishman burst on to the Indycar scene in 2002, was series runner-up in 2004 and then took the title and the Indy 500 in ’05. He switched teams for 2006 and finished level with Sam Hornish atop the standings, only missing out on a successful defence of his crown on a countback.
Less successful times followed from 2007 – though he would take back-to-back runner-up finishes at Indy in 2009 and 2010 – before he lost his full-time ride at the conclusion of last year.
It was this that gave his career new energy, resulting in Dan contesting the Indy 500 in a one-off entry with the inexperienced Bryan Herta Autosport squad. His famous win there – taken when J.R Hilderbrand crashed at the final corner – will go down in Indy legend. Moreover, he will go down as one of the Speedway’s finest competitors.
But, like fellow Brit Dario Franchitti, Dan never received the sort of recognition in his homeland that his on-track achievements deserved. Most Brits are probably only hearing his name for the first time today – and for all the wrong reasons.
In 2012 he was set to switch back to the top-line Andretti team for whom he won his title and his first 500. After seemingly waning his star was back in the ascendancy. More wins were sure to follow.
Whilst it doesn’t make it any sadder, the fact that Wheldon was one of the current Indycar field’s most successful drivers does add to the chill of his death. It reminds us – like Ayrton Senna’s loss did 17 years ago – that even the best can be taken on-track.
But this isn’t about racing: it’s about a man with a young family losing his life. Of course he knew the risks, accepted what could happen to him, but that doesn’t make it any easier on his wife, his two sons, his parents, siblings and countless friends, colleagues and fans.
We will remember Dan for his eye-catching performance at his first Indianapolis in 2003, the true beginning of his stardom in American racing; we will remember him for the success that followed with the Andretti-Green, Ganassi and Panther teams; for the easy-going personality that made him popular with fans and a sponsor’s dream; and, perhaps most of all, for that stunning win at Indy five months ago.
Rest in peace Dan.