- Thomas "T.E." McHale: Dan Wheldon was more than a superb driver -- he was a hero
- McHale says Wheldon treated all hospitality staff members as his equals; his death was tragic
- He wore a genuine smile and shared his spirit with all who wanted a part of it, McHale says
- McHale calls Wheldon's spirit "something far more valuable than an autograph or a photo"
I first met Dan Wheldon in 2003, when he stepped into the cockpit of the Klein Tools/Jim Beam Indy car at Andretti Green Racing, just before the third race of the season at the Twin Ring Motegi racing track in eastern Japan.
He was a cocky, fastidious 23-year-old in those days, with a quick step and a winning way that made him seem like a modern-day Dickens character brought to life.
"Young Wheldon," I called him back then.
He loved that.
We began our Honda Racing careers together. I was hired by the company around the same time Dan was hired as test driver for development of the Honda engine that would make its IndyCar debut during that season.
In short order, he became one of Honda's favorite sons. In 2004, he became the first Honda-powered driver ever to win an IndyCar event at the magnificent Motegi complex. The Honda-owned course had not seen one of its own cars take the checkered flag at its signature event in six futile attempts.
He won Motegi again in 2005 and then went on to win that year's Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship, a feat that has not since been matched.
There were numerous highlights after that: 16 IndyCar victories in all, culminating in this year's completely implausible win in the Centennial Indianapolis 500.
That's what the record book says. It documents Dan's legacy in numbers. But it doesn't come close to capturing his legacy in the hearts of those who knew him.
The Dan I knew was more than a racer. He was a friend. A husband. A father. A hero.
He loved shoes. He loved watches. He loved the food my trackside chef, Tim Olszewski, prepared at virtually every IndyCar Series event. (That hardly made him unique -- Tim is a really good chef.)
What set Dan apart was his genuine interest in all the members of the hospitality staff. He treated them all as his equals, and as a consequence, they were all left equally shattered after the tragedy.
Around the track, just about everyone had their own "Dan Wheldon moment." He had an uncanny talent to connect quickly and personally with everyone he met -- whether high-dollar sponsor or Turn 3 bleacher-ite -- and to give each of them something far more valuable than an autograph or a photo. He left them with his kindness, his spirit.
He never turned down a single request, whether it was for an appearance at a dealer meeting, a ride-and-drive with the media or a quick "Hello" to a group of trackside guests.
In each case, he brought a smile that was manufactured only in the most literal sense -- his realigned teeth after his '05 championship were an ongoing source of paddock amusement -- but genuine in every other imaginable way.
In a world where part of the competitive ethos is to convey at all costs an impression of invulnerability, Dan was the exception. As a colleague said to me the other day, "He let you in."
My Dan Wheldon moment occurred after the Centennial Indianapolis 500 this past May. After winning the prestigious race for the second time, Dan had just concluded an exuberant celebratory victory lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He returned to Victory Circle to begin the Hat Dance -- that incessant procession of ballcaps and photo ops, which, for understandable reasons, lasts about five times as long at Indianapolis as at any other track on the IndyCar Series circuit.
Dan had just stepped into the cockpit, and had the first hat in hand, when he looked to his left and saw me standing along the railing that divided the race car from the rabble.
He placed the hat on the car's nose, got out, walked around to my side of the car and grabbed me. I barely remember what he said to me, but I do remember hearing a loud cheer from the grandstand above us in Victory Circle. And I remember thinking, "That's pretty cool. Some people I know are happy that I'm getting this moment."
It wasn't until we separated, and Dan resumed the headwear ritual, that I looked above me to see that I did not recognize a single face among those who had been doing the cheering. Whether or not it is true, I'm going to continue in the belief that those spectators were paying tribute to the emotion of a moment between the Indianapolis 500 winner and some guy none of them had ever met. And that blew me away.
Just before he returned to his car, Daniel and I spent time crying in each other's arms. We were crying tears of joy, feeling all the pain and all the hard work it took to get to that moment, and celebrating all the promise the future would hold for him.
After last Sunday afternoon, I am not ashamed to admit, I have cried in many other arms, as well.