Most racing fans are familiar with Dan Wheldon's career moments, these are the memories I shared with Dan first hand.
I first recall seeing Dan's name in my program back in Formula Ford at Brands Hatch in 1998. Dan was racing that day in the lower ranks of British open wheel racing with other young up and comers Jenson Button, Christian Horner and Aussie Marcus Ambrose. I was there to watch my boyhood hero of Nigel Mansell at a British Touring car race and at the time had no idea it would be the last time I watched Mansell and also the first time I watched my new hero Daniel Wheldon. It was a memorable weekend for British racing fans as Damon Hill also won the Belgium Grand Prix that day which I remember well as it was only the second F1 race I had missed at Spa in the last eight years. Mansell crashed in his race but I don't remember who won the Formula Ford race.
The following year both our lives seem to head down the same path by both moving to North America in 1999. I remember watching him in Indy Lights in Toronto 2001 and being a big CART fan, it wasn't until 2003 that I attended my first Indianapolis 500. The big boys from CART like Dario, Dixon, Kanaan, De Ferran, Andretti and Helio, had finally made the jump, and now it was my turn. The likeable British rookie made a large introduction to the world of people that didn't know him that May. His speed and natural ability at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was evident and he qualified 5th. In true DW style he made the papers the next day this time for the wrong reason though by landing upside down in a crash on lap 186 coming out of turn 3. I was sad to see him out but still excited to see Gil De Ferran win as it was my first 500.
you a flag to winners circle, do you want the St Georges Cross (English flag) or Union Jack (British Flag)?" He thought about it for a second then confidently replied, "The Union Jack". The next day Rookie Danica Patrick had her coming out party and what seemed to be 300,000 Americans all cheering her on. At the finish, the place went silent except for my Dad, brother and I, who went crazy when Dan won. Dan then takes up the rest of the story on page 122 of his book "Lionheart" -
My next visit to a race was at the end of the season when Dan won the Championship at Watkins Glen, I was again proud to be there in the stands. From June onwards of that year, the new champion had F1 teams knocking on his door and even a contract offer.
Dan made a bold move by not only turning down an F1 test contract with BMW but also by not re signing with the "dream team" of AGR. Instead he signed for Chip Ganassi's team who had a couple of tough seasons with the underpowered Toyota engine.
Dan won first time out for Ganassi at the historic Rolex 24 at Daytona and also his first Indycar race of the year at Miami Homestead, a track he dominated at. Soon May came around and Dan was ready to defend his Indianapolis crown. Everyone will remember that race for the incredible last lap pass by Sam Hornish Jr on
rookie Marco Andretti. But what everyone forgot was how Dan Wheldon had dominated that race, almost lapping Hornish before a late flat tyre made him pit. His speed on the last restart was incredible, to come back through to 4th, but he ran out of laps to re-pass Michael, Marco and Hornish. This was explained in my "fan feedback" story and photo in 2007 Indy 500 program on page 128. I described my pain of not seeing my hero win again but was quoted in the program saying that the finish was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. That was back in 2006 though and in the next few years my "most incredible things I had ever seen list" had changed again.
Dan had more Indycar wins in 07 and 08 but it was Indianapolis he loved and wanted so much again. In 07 he crashed and 08 led some laps before something went wrong on his car and he finished 12th. It didn't seem to hurt as much as not seeing him win those two years previous, perhaps because he wasn't that close and also
as it was great to see Dario and Scott taste the milk for the first time.
Dan knew I liked collecting helmets and at his motor home in 08 after the 500 I said to him "you don't need that blue thing anymore do you?" A week later his blue special one off design 500 race day helmet showed up in a box at my home. It was the only Indy 500 helmet not in his own collection and one I will cherish forever.
2009 and 2010 was hard years for Dan and his fans, At Indianapolis I felt upset when I watched Dan came so close to winning in 09 and it was torture to see it repeated in 2010. I had carried my large Union Jack flag in my bag now for 5 years and wasn't able to give it away again. My first trip to St Pete that year also scared me as I witnessed Dan's big crash entering turn 1. I had seen many crashes but this time, I felt scared as it was my friend and hero in that car. The cars are so strong these days though and Dan walked away.
Watching 2011 St Pete this year on TV with my 3 year old daughter, I had to explain that the #4 car wasn't Wheldon anymore and she too felt sad. We were all missing Dan very much. The announcement was made though that he would drive for Bryan Herta's team in the 500. I have to be honest I was a little disappointed that DW was driving for a team with only one Indy 500 start behind them.
We all know what happened next and I don't think I will ever get that feeling again when he overtook JR for the lead right in front of me and my family. My inside pain of the last 3 years watching him in 2nd place on lap 199 (the last lap) was instantly change to pure joy. It is a moment that most race fans will remember for the rest of their life but one that hit my heart as hard as anyone’s. The emotions of myself, my Dad and brother of evident in this last lap video -
Late in the season I had been to a few more races but was looking for an excuse to go cheer on Dario for the Championship in Vegas. When Dan was given the chance to win 5 million it was my perfect excuse to go and support him as well. I had a really nice chat with Dan on Saturday at Mandalay Bay and hoped to spend some
time with him again after the race or at the party on Monday night. Saturday night before the race though I was invited to an Indycar Champion members party. I was a new member of this club and they had some great prizes that night.
The grand prize was Dan's Indy 500 winning William Rast side pod off his Bryan Herta entered car. I knew the full history of this car and that Wade Cunningham had crashed it the following week after Indy. The staff running the event told me it was the real deal and Dan had signed it. I reached for my wallet to see how much
I had to bribe the winning ticket holder. But as many raffle prizes were drawn I felt more confident of my chances. As Kevin Lee was reaching to draw the winning ticket I looked at the last two digits of mine, they were 99. I touched my friend Mike's Greg Moore tattoo on his arm, and said the words "it is my destiny to win this" and sure enough I did. I was confident and didn't seem surprised when I took the mic and said "it couldn't be going to a better home." I was ecstatic and I text a picture of me with it to both Dan and Susie. That item will stay with me in my collection forever.
Sadly that was my last lucky day in Vegas. I really can't bring myself to talk about the next day yet but will say this. It was the hardest day of my life and want to thank all of my friends who picked me up that day, they know who they are. Friends in racing, friends in life. But we all must put on our best Dan Wheldon smiles and keep moving ahead.
Often in times where people pass, no one has a bad word to say about that person. But even before we lost Dan, no one said a bad word about him and now every time I hear people talk about Dan, they don't talk about the fact that he is one of the greatest drivers of our time and all time at Indianapolis. They talk about Daniel Wheldon the person. His infectious smile, his larger than life personality and most of all his even bigger heart.
I will continue to be Dan's biggest fan and friend, today, tomorrow and in 20 years from now. The day I left Vegas I designed a tribute sticker for Dan that was sent to Australia. With the help of Alex Tagliani we were able to put those stickers on the driver’s helmets and cars to honour our champion and friend. At the funeral, I gave some to Jamie Little who also gave some out at the NASCAR race. I have many more plans to keep his memory alive so fellow drivers, friends and fans can enjoy memories of Dan Wheldon’s life and career.
Darren wrote this shortly after attending Dan's funeral in Florida, you can also find him on Twitter.