“A good day is any day that you’re alive” - Paul Westerberg
It started raining just as I began the 30-minute trek home from my buddy Dan’s house. Nothing too heavy, mind you, just a sprinkling, certainly nothing like the rain that had dropped on me a few days ago. In fact, it was absolutely perfect, given the circumstances that dictated I even have to walk home - witnessing the passing of racing champion Dan Wheldon, only 33 years old, on national television earlier today, and just how heavily that hit home for me.
About an hour after IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard made the worst announcement that anybody ever has to make, we saluted Wheldon the most fitting way we knew how to as Bostonians - with his drink (Jim Beam, as a former sponsor, was the drink of choice) and with the Dropkick Murphys. “Fields of Athenry” was the choice of song.
But as I walked home, fiddling with my music and perusing the sad, introspective output of Westerberg, something convinced me that “Good Day” was the song to go with. Written to celebrate the life of Westerberg’s former Replacements bandmate Bob Stinson, I had actually skipped it a few days before, thinking “It’s a very rare mood that gets me into this song.” Commence that mood.
Westerberg and Wheldon is an odd pairing, like a mismatched wine and seafood, or poor color coordination. Westerberg is a glum, tired Minnesotan singer-songwriter with an affinity for baseball; Wheldon a dapper, cheery British gentleman with the need for speed. They couldn’t be any more different… and yet, alone with my thoughts in the Boston drizzle, watching the massive city shut down for the night, the song choice just seemed so perfect.
In fact, that upbeat attitude is the first thing you would ever notice about Wheldon if you met him. He was always (well, almost always) smiling, more than happy to meet you, take a moment out of his day to chat with you. Everybody that ever met him loved Dan, loved being around him, and loved watching him on the track.
That performance on the track is why we all knew him. Wheldon was one of the top open-wheel drivers of the modern era, winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, including this year. He was the 2005 IndyCar champion, finishing in the top five in points from 2004-2008 inclusive. This was the first season since 2002 in which he wasn’t slated to complete a full schedule; but by virtue of his Indy win in a one-off deal, was offered a $5 million challenge to win from the final starting position at Las Vegas today.
Dan had tight-knit connections with most of the open-wheel community. He’d driven for everybody from Bryan Herta to Chip Ganassi. Series champion Dario Franchitti inherited his ride from Wheldon; series media darling Danica Patrick was about to vacate her ride to him for the 2012 season as she moved on to NASCAR. When he won at Indy this year, he did it by passing the wrecked leading car of J.R. Hildebrand, a car which he drove last year.
As a racing fan (it was my first sport), I had always liked Wheldon. He drove with all of the zeal and speed that his exciting personality and quick wit would suggest. He was incredibly popular for a reason - the perfect mix of gab and gall, a throwback to the days of mouthy racers as opposed to the clean-cut sponsor-manufactured drivers of today. And while Wheldon could pull that angle off too, nobody could ever stifle that personality.
But on a more personal level, I knew Dan from my past gig as an IndyCar blogger/journalist. I’d met him twice, both times at Watkins Glen - in 2009 as a fan, before I began writing, and in 2010 as a new writer on the block trying to establish my footing. Both times Dan made me feel like I’d known him for years. In fact, dealing with people may have been the only thing he did better than driving a racecar.
In fact, I have Dan to thank for my first contact in IndyCar. In 2010, he released a self-edited book of pictures chronicling his life and career entitled “Lionheart,” and staged a signing in the IndyCar merchandise tent for fans purchasing Wheldon gear. When he got to me, holding my die-cast to be autographed to my site (which, by the way, I failed to realize is a major no-no as a media guy), I mentioned that I was struggling to find footing as a writer, and would he have the time to do an interview eventually. He directed me to Panther Racing PR czar Mike Kitchel, whose business card I have to this day.
That interview, unfortunately, never happened. These guys are busy folks, you know, and Dan was an unwavering supporter of his sponsor, the National Guard. In fact, his nationality did nothing to belie that; the commercials of Wheldon as a drill sergeant created to promote the IndyCar Nation fan program were marvelous, and he frequently appeared at Guard events. So it goes. I wasn’t mad. There was an autographed model with my website name and Dan’s autograph on it. That was still pretty cool.
Today’s race “ended” with a five-lap salute to Wheldon. In a private drivers’ meeting, Franchitti and former teammate/close friend Tony Kanaan broke the news to the rest of the field, before Bernard made his announcement. Officially, the race was abandoned, a sickening step that unfortunately sets no precedent in IndyCar history; when spectators passed in a loose wheel incident at Charlotte in 1999, that race was dumped and has never returned.
It’s worthless to keep speculating about what could have been done differently. The entire point of Wheldon’s challenge was to start from last; by lap 12, when the crash occurred, he had already passed 10 cars. But why there were 34 cars going 225 miles per hour on a banked 1.5-mile oval, when the sport’s biggest race features only 33 cars going the same speed on a flat 2.5-mile oval, is beyond me.
Sports are supposed to be events that remove us from the harsh inevitabilities of everyday life, unifying forces between hundreds of thousands of very different people who all share one love in a particular form of recreation. We don’t go to sports to witness those things. We don’t go to sports to witness death or put life in perspective. But there’s a reason why Ernest Hemingway once called auto racing one of the only “real” sports - because this bitter reality hangs over every driver, every fan, at every race. It’s bitten us many times, but in the many years of safe cars, SAFER barriers, and no tragedies, it’s safest to say that we might have begun to take this reality for granted.
Life will go on for most of us. Many of you will be unaffected. But racing is a big family, and an entire sport has lost a family member. And for Dan’s wife, Susie Wheldon, and their two sons, two-year-old Sebastian and seven-month-old Oliver, life will never be the same. A mother will raise two children alone; two children will never get to know their father. Looking back on the photos of Dan, showing his children the yard of bricks and holding them while celebrating his greatest triumph, are unbearably difficult to look at right now.
And unfortunately, sports put life into perspective once again. I can only encourage you to go out and tell your family members that you love them before it’s too late. Say something to your mother; Dan’s is suffering from Alzheimer’s right now, and his emotion over that diagnosis was palpable in Indy victory lane interviews. Say something to your father; Dan’s has always been one of his biggest supporters. Say something to your friends; Dan had many. I know you’re reading; I love you mom, I love you dad, I love you friends.
Right now, I’ll go back to playing my Westerberg and trying to cope with the first great racing tragedy of my adulthood. Many of us lost a hero; I lost a man who always made me feel like a friend. Letting it all out seems to be the best way. I left my post writing about IndyCar in August after deciding that the series didn’t have the drivers’ well-being in mind; I’m saddened and sickened that the most devastating of incidents of my lifetime has brought those grim thoughts to light once again. I wanted to be wrong.
A good day is any day that you’re alive. We’ll miss you, Dan.