As many of you know by now, IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, 33, died in a massive accident in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. If you’ve read the coverage, you know that Wheldon, who hailed from Emberton, England, was a popular driver, a two-time Indy 500 winner and the 2005 IRL IndyCar Series champion. You probably also know that drivers were hitting 225 mph in practice, and that a debate about whether the cars are just too fast these days is inevitable.
Now, I am by no means a big racing fan. I grew up playing and watching traditional American team sports (and soccer) and only really watch NASCAR or IndyCar if I happen to remember that the Daytona 500 or Indy 500 is on, in which case I’ll tune in for the last few laps. From an outside perspective, racing can come off as nothing more than a ridiculously dangerous way to burn a helluva lot of rubber and gas.
And yet, this tragedy has particular emotional resonance for me. First off, driver JR Hildebrand, who was also involved in the crash and remains under observation at a nearby hospital, is a good friend of fellow Made Man staffer Reza Farazmand, who was at the race. And on a more personal note, I once met Wheldon.
Six years ago, as the sports editor for a men’s magazine in New York City, I received a call from an Indy PR rep. We didn’t cover racing much, but when he said he was in town with three Indy 500 winners—Wheldon, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Helio Castroneves—I figured I could make some time. We agreed to meet for lunch at Virgil’s BBQ in midtown.
I liked all the guys, but Wheldon stood out to me. He had slick, swooping hair, a huge smile and an English accent, and we were the same age. So even though we came from totally different worlds, we connected. He had the classic star athlete’s confidence and charm, but thanks perhaps to Indy being the second-most popular car racing sport in America, he wasn’t obscenely cocky.
He struck me as the kind of guy who discovered his talent at a very young age (he started karting at age four), quickly took that talent to the highest levels of his sport (he’d won the Series and his first 500 by 27) and was now simply grateful for the happy turns his life had taken. He seemed a sharp fellow—a perception enhanced by the English accent, of course—and like all the drivers was well aware of the risks involved in racing at speeds in excess of 200 mph.
He accepted them.
Even after marrying and fathering two sons, he knew that racing was what he was born to do, and that despite the danger involved, he’d continue to pursue the sport he loved, both to win and to support his young family.
I came away from the meeting charmed, which is not something I’d necessarily say about all the interactions with football, baseball and basketball stars I’d had through my job.
I know when famous people die—especially when they die young—there’s a tendency to eulogize them in an overly positive way. Hell, when Al Davis passed away last weekend, most talking heads made him sound like a saint, which we all know he wasn’t. I also know that having a couple of beers and some ribs with a man does not enable one to know him in any deep way.
But that said, Dan Wheldon was in my estimation a great guy. I admired his humor, his humility and above all his passion. I’m sad for his family, for the sport, and for the fact that a man just a month younger than me has left us far too soon.
Grab hold of, celebrate and make the most of every day, my fellow Made Men. Wheldon did. And even if you’re not racing around a track at superhuman speeds, you truly never know which one will be your last.