The irrepressable Dan Wheldon celebrates his Indianapolis 500 win in 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
It was a sullen, solemn day at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham.
As the sparkling, colorful race cars took the green flag, there were cheers from the crowd, but they seemed muted, almost half-hearted.
It was so because on the track was a white car with a black number 29 on it, and the sport's biggest hero was lying on a coroner's slab.
On the third lap of the race, hands flew to the sky, three fingers extended. Some cheered. Many cried. All paid tribute to the fallen legend.
It was one of those seminal moments that you remember forever... made that way by the immediacy of its causative events and by the spontaneity of the act.
But those moments didn't stop coming - not even after the incredible catharsis six months later when Dale Earnhardt Jr. flew to victory at Daytona - and as they continued their emotional weight inexorably drained away.
It is 2012 now, over a decade removed from Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. And still you will see it on the third lap of any given NASCAR race - someone will be holding up three fingers. It is difficult to criticize the fan passion that spurs the gesture, that is for certain. Notwithstanding, the gesture is now almost a parody, a genuflection done out of rote or habit.
There is a certain majesty and honor to a singular event like the one that occurred at Rockingham in 2001. In the moment, there could not have been a finer tribute to Earnhardt's memory. But as time went on, Earnhardt tributes became industrialized - mass-produced on the scale of Model-T Fords. Eventually the tributes, heartfelt as they were, became tiresome and maudlin.
I bring this up because the impulse to endlessly memorialize may end up affecting the IndyCar world as the series returns to action six months after Dan Wheldon was tragically killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In the immediate aftermath of Wheldon's death, there were numerous spontaneous outpourings of grief and tributes in his memory - the agonizing pace laps turned by his peers to "finish" the Vegas race, the endless numbers of Lionheart stickers on helmets and race cars across the world, the public wake held in Indianapolis that offered everyone a chance to laugh, smile, cry, and mourn.
As time has gone on, the honors have not stopped rolling in - Wheldon's initials now make up the official name of Dallara's new IndyCar, and Wheldon's victorious pose from Indianapolis Motor Speedway's victory lane last year is forever memorialized on the 2012 Indy 500 ticket.
The gestures are touching, but in a way it feels like people are starting to belabor the point. It's not that we should not always remember Wheldon's life or his accomplishments in the sport. But there is also value to being able to move forward and beyond the memorializing stage. The longer the process is drawn out, the less impactful the original tributes become.
There is a fan-led initiative on social media at the moment that is aimed toward petitioning NASCAR on FOX, which is broadcasting the Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, to go silent on lap 77 in Wheldon's memory. The same group is also hoping that ABC's Indy 500 telecast will go silent on lap 98. 77 was Wheldon's car number at Las Vegas, and 98 was his car number when he won at the Brickyard.
I applaud these fans for their purity of sentiment. The act is spurred by respect and love, and there should be no indictment regarding that. But at the risk of offending these fine, well-meaning individuals, I do not count myself as a supporter of their initiatives.
Maybe it is because of the flood of other proposed memorials that are being suggested - renaming the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as the "Lionheart Grand Prix," for instance - or maybe it is because honoring Wheldon's memory at a NASCAR race would seem out of context.
I suspect, though, that in my heart of hearts I am saying that "Enough is enough." When does facing grief become wallowing in it? At some point the memorializing needs to end in order to let our grief fade into fond sentiment and warm memory.
Nobody involved in INDYCAR on any level will ever forget Dan Wheldon. But while I am sure Wheldon would have loved the continuing tributes in his name, I also have a hunch that, like most racers, he would see getting back to racing as the ultimate homage. It seemed to me that for Dan the best race was always the next race.
So let's be done with the showy public tributes. There was a time and season for them; now it is time to go racing again. We will never forget - but we should also make new memories to live with the ones that we cherish.