(The first photo I ever took of Dan Wheldon, in Richmond, 2005)
Joe has been a fan of open-wheel racing all his life. Me? I never paid any attention to any of it. Every Sunday during the warmer months, Joe spent many hours watching Formula One, Indy, and Kart races. Even though I really wasn't interested and didn't watch them with him, it wasn't long before I could distinguish between a Formula One and an Indy Car race just by the sounds the cars made.
Then the Indy Racing League came to Richmond. You have no idea how excited this made Joe. He went to the race there every June with a friend who is even more of a die-hard racing fan than Joe. One year Joe decided that Larry was old enough to go with them to the track to see the qualifying, meet the drivers, and maybe watch one of the minor races that are usually held the day before the main event. They had so much fun that the next year, Joe wanted to bring all of us to the festivities. Reluctantly I went along, and it wasn't nearly as awful as I thought it would be; in fact, it was kind of fun. The race was the next evening, and Joe and his friend went together as usual; I stayed home with the kids, having no desire to watch it on television.
Fast-forward to the following year, Memorial Day Weekend 2005. I decided to watch the Indy 500 with Joe, since the previous summer I had seen some of the drivers and their cars, and was somewhat familiar with who most of them were. That was the first auto race I watched from start to finish, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was exciting to see Danica Patrick come so close to be the first woman to win that race, and equally exciting to see Dan Wheldon finish first, since I remembered seeing him in Richmond the previous summer. After that, I watched every race for the rest of the season. When it was time to go to Richmond for the qualifying and (my favorite part) the autograph session, I was actually looking forward to it. Imagine my delight when, after the qualifying runs, we were lining up to enter the building where the drivers were signing autographs, I looked over and saw Dan Wheldon standing quietly to one side, with a set of headphones and a mic, and a cameraman nearby. He looked like he was waiting to be interviewed or something. I quickly snapped his photo, and went inside only slightly disappointed that we wouldn't be getting his autograph that day.
(At first I wasn't going to post this photo, because it's such a goofy picture. There's a little story behind it: It was June 23, 2006, the day after Dan Wheldon's 28th birthday. At the autograph session in Richmond, when it was our turn to greet Dan, I wished him good luck, held up my little pocket digital camera and asked, "Did you have a nice birthday, Dan?" "Yes," he replied, "It was very nice, thank you." I made the mistake of snapping the photo while he was still speaking and I think I caught him just as he was forming the word "Thank." It's not the best picture of Dan, but it makes me laugh.)
When Joe went to the race the next night I decided to watch it on TV this time around. Mostly I was trying to spot Joe in the crowd, but I found myself paying attention to the race and was actually interested in what was happening on the track. The race winner that night was Helio Castroneves; he's known (besides winning three Indy 500's AND Dancing With the Stars) for climbing the track fence every time he wins a race. As I watched him climb that fence in Richmond, and saw how much crazy-fun everyone there was having, I decided right then and there that I was darn well going to the race with Joe next time, come hell or high water.
(Getting this picture of Helio in '08 was the highlight of our racing weekend that year, at least for me!)
The rest is history. We went to every race in Richmond after that, watched a lot of qualifying and practice sessions, and collected many autographs from many more drivers, including some from Dan Wheldon. Moe's first red hat is graced with his signature, as well as a flag with the Indy Racing League's logo that we have hanging in our rec room. When the race in Richmond was dropped from the schedule, we sought out others attend; a couple of years ago we took a trip with friends--the one Joe used to go to the Richmond races with and his family--to the Finger Lakes region of New York for the Watkins Glen race. (The series dropped that one from their schedule, too, unfortunately). We've been to the race at Mid-Ohio in 2010, as well as this year's Baltimore Grand Prix. We're hoping--someday--to take a trip to Indianapolis for the Indy 500.
(Dan Wheldon on a qualifying run at Mid-Ohio, 2010)
Last night we cranked up the DVR to enjoy the last race of the season (and in Vegas! What a fun place to go for a race!), which we had recorded earlier in the day. We speculated about who would win the championship, and remarked how great it would be to see Danica Patrick win once more before racing full time in NASCAR next year. We were pulling for Dan Wheldon, too, who was starting from the back of the field; and for his friend Tony Kanaan, who had pole position and hadn't won a race in a while.
(Here's Dan and Tony signing stuff for the boys in 2009. We took Curly's picture with Tony; that was the highlight of his weekend.)
After that horrible crash that halted the race and left everyone in shock, we watched with increasing dread as little by little, it became clear that Dan Wheldon was hurt very, very badly. As we heard accounts of the accident from other drivers and saw team owners, crew members, and drivers alike praying, pacing, and even crying as they waited for news about Dan, we began to fear the worst. Part of me wanted to run and turn on the computer for a real-time update, but then there was the part of me that wanted to believe that all this hadn't already happened hours before, and that I still had time to hope and pray that Dan would be OK. If we pretended that this wasn't prerecorded and was in fact happening at that very moment, then there was still hope. If Dan was dead, I didn't want to know that yet. I could still pray, please, Dear God, let him be all right.
When the horrific news that Dan had been killed finally reached our ears, I cried. I cried again this morning when I saw a photo on TV of Dan with his wife and two little boys. I mean, really little. They will never remember their Dad.
I wondered aloud today why I keep watching this sport where a person straps himself into a rocket ship on wheels and drives around and around at unprecedented speeds. Sooner or later, what happened in Vegas is bound to take place, and someone is going to die. We've seen plenty of crashes, and even a few injuries, (and one driver, Paul Dana, died a few years back when he crashed during a practice session) but never one as grisly as that one yesterday. It's hard to fathom that a young, energetic guy, with two Indy 500 wins under his belt, a lovely family and his entire life ahead of him, can one minute be smiling and joking with reporters, gushing about how excited he is about this race; and in a second he's gone.
Dan was the first driver I was really excited about. (Joe once teased that I had a "thing" for him. Not true.) I'll keep watching races, that much is certain, but it won't be the same without Dan.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.