Whenever I close my eyes and think of that day, my heart panics. Chills run down my spine, freezing my blood along the way. The tears build up quickly, and I opened my eyes, trying to forget it all, as if it were a horrible nightmare I had conjured up myself.
This wasn’t made up at all. This was a heartbreaking truth.
Yet, it was still a nightmare, with reality twisted into its grasp.
I remember waiting for the IndyCar finale at Las Vegas to start, filling in the empty void. The previous night was the Charlotte night race, a halfway-mark for The Chase. Sitting on the floor, my fingers rubbed the scroll pad of my BlackBerry, throwing me through my Twitter timeline.
My dad was in the kitchen, catching up with Grandpa on the phone. It was his birthday, and Grandpa Schneider could only send a call his way. As I watched pre-race, I listened to their conversation.
“Indy’s having their finale out there at Vegas. I don’t think it’s a good idea . . . I just hope nobody gets killed.”
The statement struck me in a way that caused my eyebrows to come together. I had never heard my father say anything like that before. An uneasy feeling settled into my chest for the rest of the race preview show. When a man who has seen many races and wrecks across all forms of racing, you listen to what his gut tells him. That gut feeling wasn’t pleasant at all.
So, my parents and I settled in to watch the finale. We weren’t big into IndyCar then, since the races were scattered throughout other channels we didn’t receive. Like many, we enjoyed the Indy 500, only knowing certain names and teams. Together, we has witnessed the 2011 Indianapolis 500, where J.R. Hildebrand wrecked coming out of turn four. In that shocking last lap, Dan Wheldon suddenly won that prestigious race for the second time.
In that moment, I cried for him, for the win, for the honor.
Then, on October 16, 2011, on lap 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the tears turned black.
The incident began with Wade Cunningham clipping James Hinchcliffe, and then making contact with J.R. Hildebrand. As many times as I saw that replay, I could never stomach what happened in result of Cunningham and Hildebrand’s machines coming together.
A part of me knew what had happened. I didn’t want to believe it, but a section of my heart was broken. Quivering. Struggling to breathe. My fingers scrolled me through Twitter, showing me others who had witnessed this crash. The response was a mix of fright, numbness, and inquisition. Nobody knew what had happened in that exact moment, but it was bad. That was the overall feeling everyone got after the incident.
For hours, my parents and I speculated, and, although no one said anything, we all understood what we had watched. It wasn’t until all the drivers left their make-shift drivers meeting until our suspicions were confirmed. Danica Patrick was reduced to tears. Dario Franchitti was barely held together. I dug my fingernails into the palm of my hand to prevent myself from breaking down.
When the announcement was made, ABC was late to the press conference, so Marty Reid was left with the burden of telling the audience about the passing of Dan Wheldon.
As I type this now, I struggle to hold back tears. Back in that moment, I was so numb, I couldn’t cry.
In an instant, a driver’s life flashed, then dimmed before my very eyes.
He was gone.
I couldn’t imagine how a long-time fan felt; my emotions were everywhere, and I wasn’t that connected to IndyCar. Yet, I am a racing fan. A NASCAR fan. One who had seen numerous replays of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal accident and its aftermath. Each time I watch those tapes, I fall into myself. Part of me struggles to fathom the pain of watching a hero be taken away by what he loves. The other part of me longs to go back in time and experience the effect he had on fans, drivers, NASCAR itself.
The harsh irony in all of this is that, at the time of his passing, Dan was working to make a safer chassis for IndyCar. That work, along with his legacy, remains tangible today.
When I went to Mid-Ohio, many IndyCar fans wore Dan Wheldon shirts. Every merchandising tent sold his memorabilia. That made me realize racing has the most dedicated fans in the world. Those who have been lost while doing their passion will never be lost in our hearts.
I remember Dan as a winner. His memory is always a presence in the back of my mind, from the 2011 Indianapolis 500 win to that day one year ago. That experience showed me how fragile the racing butterfly really is, that, at any given moment, everything can shatter. He gave me a piece of mind. I hate that it came from such a tragedy.
We will never forget you, Dan. May your Lionheart roar forever.