The Day: October 16, 2011 — Remembering Lionheart, Dan Wheldon

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Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 before tragically losing his life on Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Paul Webb/LAT for IndyCar photo)

Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 before tragically losing his life on Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Paul Webb/LAT for IndyCar photo)

LAS VEGAS — They say that one remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing in life’s darkest moments.

I remember exactly where I was five years ago today. I was on a bus, riding back to school after a high school marching band contest, but I was glued to my phone because it was the last day of the IndyCar season and they were set to tackle one of my favorite tracks in the country: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

I couldn’t get enough signal to pull timing and scoring, so I was relying on text updates from a friend of mine who lived in Indiana.

That’s why, when my phone rang, it set off alarm bells in my head.

I remember answering the phone and asking him, “How far in are they?”

“12 laps,” he said, his voice shaking. And then, before I could respond further, he added: “As soon as you get home, turn on your TV,” he said to me. “It went bad. It’s really really bad.”

At that moment, my mind was racing. I didn’t even know what had happened at that point, hadn’t seen any video, nothing. I was totally in the dark save for those 19 words. But I was worried.

“Bad” in motorsports usually only means one of two things: fans are hurt, or we’ve lost a driver. I didn’t want either of those things to be true of course, but knowing where the series was at, and the potential of the race cars, I knew either or both had a good possibility of being a reality.

By the time I got home and saw the video of the crash, it started to sink in.

It was the ever-so-slightest of contact between Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe that set off the maelstrom, and it happened so quickly that you could barely process it all. Cars collided, launched over one another, and then … that flash of fire against the catchfence that sticks in my memory to this day appeared.

And then, just that quickly, it was over. All that was left was a scene that looked as if it had come out of the Terminator movies.

I only had to see it once for the gravity of the situation hit me. I went numb. And when they said it was Dan that was the most seriously injured, I couldn’t believe it. Dan was one of the truly nice guys, as people in my family would say, “he was one of the good guys, the hero against the villain”. There was no way this was happening.

Was there?

And then at 6 p.m. Eastern time, the news broke. He was gone. The brilliant smile was forever lost, and one of open-wheel racing’s brightest stars was blotted out in a terrible, fiery tragedy.

I cried. I curled into my dad’s lap and cried for almost an hour. I have no shame in admitting that. Though I’m a media member, I’m also a fan, but more importantly, I’m human. The emotion of the situation overwhelmed me. And though I had never met him, I felt like I had lost a friend, because that’s just the kind of personality Dan was. He was real, he was genuine, and even if you weren’t looking him in the face eye-to-eye, you felt like you knew him.

Having that kind of a person ripped away, the kind of person that can brighten the day of anyone who happens to see him on TV or in person … that hurt.

The day that followed was tough. I admit, I let it affect me more than I probably should have. But I didn’t know what else to do. I had just started working in the world of motorsports media about two months prior to the accident and I didn’t know how else to react. I didn’t want to do anything and the last thing I wanted to do was think about racing.

But something that was said by a driver, and to this day I can’t remember which one exactly, following Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 struck me late that next night.

They would have wanted us to race on, because if the shoe were on the other foot, they would have raced on for us.”

That was the moment when I realized that yes, it’s okay to hurt, because these are our friends, and our colleagues — but they would want us to keep the sport they loved alive because it’s part of their legacy and if they were still here, they would want to be enjoying it as well.

Continued on the next page…

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