|Danny after winning his second Indy 500, May 2011|
Danica finished fourth, which at the time was the highest a female had ever finished at the Memorial Day tradition (she broke her own record a few years later by finishing third). She could have won the race, but her pit crew thought she would run out of gas had she continued at top speed, so they ordered her to slow. They found out later that she wouldn't have run out of fuel.
So instead of seeing the first woman win the Indy 500, we saw somebody else. And since Danica got all the hype, the winner was kind of immediately overshadowed, and an underdog. Since I love underdogs, he immediately became my favorite Indycar racer.
His name was Dan Wheldon.
In 2011, another Indianapolis rookie made headlines at the 500, although not as much as Danica. JR Hildebrand is from just a few miles away where I grew up in Marin County, California. He, like Danica, was given a great chance to win the race.
I don't like watching teevee during the daytime on a nice day, but I switch on the 500 anyway every year. Living on the west coast, I turned on the race reasonably late, as I usually do.
At the point I joined the coverage (already in progress), it was clear that Hildebrand had the best car out there, and it was his race to lose. As it turns out, that's exactly what happened.
In the very final turn of the very final lap, with the checkered flag in sight and 200 thousand fans roaring, Hildebrand tried to lap a much slower car. Hildebrand lost control, crashed into the wall and started sliding towards the finish still in first place. But the man in second place- who was keeping his foot to the floor and his reactions sharp just in case something like this happened- avoided the debris and got around Hildebrand in the final straight for the very unexpected victory.
His name was Dan Wheldon.
And again, his win was overshadowed by somebody else not winning. I remember watching the post-race stuff and wanting them to focus more on Dan, and his second win as the Speedway. He'd become the 18th man to win the race twice, and here they are focusing on someone who lost- again. That was frustrating to watch. Danny didn't have a full-time ride during the Indy season, and so for him to win at Indy that season was more or less like the plot of an Elvis movie come to life. Actually, it was better:
Elvis movie: “Lucky Jackson goes to Las Vegas to participate in the city's first annual Grand Prix Race. However, his race car is in need of a new engine in order to compete in the event.
Lucky raises the necessary money in Las Vegas, but he loses it when he is shoved into the pool by the hotel's nubile swimming instructor, Rusty Martin. Lucky then has to work as a waiter at the hotel to replace the lost money to pay his hotel bill, as well as enter the hotel's talent contest in hopes of winning a cash prize sizable enough to pay for his car's engine.”
Real life: “After three years with Panther racing, Dan Wheldon is fired after having not won a race and replaced by a hotshot rookie, JR Hildebrand. When no other team will pick him up, Wheldon joins a former teammate's Indy racing team, but they don't have enough money to run all the races that season. Wheldon and the team focus on the 500. Wheldon doesn't lead any laps, but is in second place when Hildebrand, the hotshot rookie, crashes on the final turn. Wheldon wins.”
This isn't the stuff of real life.
When October 16th 2011 rolled around, the final race of the season took place in Las Vegas. Danny raced in it because he was a race car driver, but apparently lots of others didn't because they didn't think the racecourse was safe, and it had a lot of rookies (read: untested) drivers on it as well. Danny raced anyway. If you read the Wikipedia account of the race, it just smells from day one.
On lap eleven, there was a huge crash and Danny's car went airborne and crashed into the fence. Danny's head hit a fence post and he died instantly. Here's the video, if you want to.
It was a Sunday and I was at work at the teevee station. We had a half hour sportscast that ran after Sunday Night Football on NBC, so I was focused on getting that together. Football was the conversation of the day. Nobody else at work knew I'd been to the 2005 Indy or knew I was a fan of Dan's at all.
The other sports guy said out of the blue: “Dan Wheldon's dead.”
I remember the moment. I remember sitting at my desk. I remember the lighting in the room. I remember the sounds. It felt like a family member had died, it kicked me in the gut so hard.
I know that's a stupid thing to say. Dan Wheldon had no idea who I was, or that I'd seen him race. I didn't know anything about him other than he was a race car driver.
But dammit, he was my race car driver. Because I'd seen him win in 2005, every time I saw him race I thought of that weekend. And Danny was somehow the underdog even though he was a fantastic driver, and it had just been announced that he had gotten a full-time Indy ride for 2012. He was going to win Indy again and again and again and again and be the best driver of them all.
And I would be able to say “I saw him when.”
Years later, when he would get inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, I would watch his speech and I would still remember seeing him at the Indy 500.
He was my race car driver. And he was gone.
Today's the 2nd anniversary of his death. He'll never give that speech, and he'll never win Indy again.
That still hurts.
photo courtesy: hpd.com