Emotions flow, Wheldon celebrated at ceremony in Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was nearly four hours before "A Celebration of the Life of Dan Wheldon" was scheduled to begin at Conseco Fieldhouse, and the line down Delaware Street led far down the block. Those who came to mourn the loss of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was killed in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week wanted to be a part of this tribute.
The arena marquee usually reserved for the Pacers at this time of year read, "Conseco Fieldhouse Welcomes Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011, God Speed."
Among those who came to pay respects were Frank Hustmyer, 58, of Indianapolis, and his daughter Christine, 15, who cried over the loss of her hero.
"For me it's deeply personal on my daughter," said Hustmyer, a researcher at Roche Diagnostics. "In 2007, Dan at a Target appearance gave my daughter her first kiss. He was so deeply personal and took the time with her and as a father it was incredible the emotion I felt and saw in her eyes what happened when he gave her the time and love. She was nine or 10 at the time and to see the time, emotion and also the wonder in her face when she first met him. I told him she had a crush on him.
"After he won (the Indy 500) this year I thought I was going to have a stroke. But that look in her eyes when she first met him is the reason I'm here today."
Christine openly cried as her father spoke.
"I've been going to the race since I was 2, and he was the first guy I had a crush on," she said. "He was my favorite driver. I still can't believe he is dead. He was so nice. I thought I was going to die when I met him. I was so nervous, and I didn't want my dad to tell him I had a crush on him so he said, `Why don't you come up here and give me a kiss on the cheek?' I went up there and had a hat on, and I hit his face with my hat when I went to kiss him. It was so embarrassing but he let me kiss me again. I feel so bad for his family.
"I'll always remember my first kiss."
Her father comforted the teenager as she sobbed. The elder Hustmyer is a longtime Indianapolis 500 fan and purchases garage passes for the month of May. He often watched how Wheldon interacted with the crowds that would surround him whenever he walked down Gasoline Alley.
"He was in control of his own moment and his destiny, and I was always impressed by that," Hustmyer said. "I find the outpouring so unbelievable and most of the people aren't here for what he did on the track. It's not about what he did on the track or the chassis it's the personal things. The fact so many people are here early are so they could be part of this tribute to him.
"It's real tough for us. I don't believe in closure. I don't believe there is such a thing. He had a long beautiful life ahead of him. Boy, we are really going to miss him."
So will Scott Harner, who worked with Wheldon at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing from 2006 to 2008. Harner has been at that race team for 20 years as a spotter. On Oct. 16, he was spotting for Dario Franchitti, witnessing everything that turned it into IndyCar's Black Sunday.
"Just the first 10 laps of the race I think I said 'three-wide' at least four times up to the point of the accident, and you rarely say that," Harner said. "That track and our cars produce that kind of racing, and we need to change that. This is an opportunity at IndyCar to make some changes if they deem it necessary. Whether we need to separate the cars a little bit or what it may be. I was talking to Rick Mears after the accident happened, and Mario Andretti is of the same opinion. We need to give the cars more horsepower, take downforce away, make them lift off the accelerator in the corners and give the drivers a chance to get away from each other because right now they can't.
"Our best races the last few years have been at Indianapolis because there you can't pack race in the Indianapolis 500 because the track is flat, and it's one groove."
Wheldon's loss deeply affected Harner, who considered him a friend long after leaving Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
"Dan was an amazing friend and an amazing racer," Harner said. "When he walked into a room he would light it up. He was just that kind of person. He came to our house and had dinner and met my son Stephen, and he would call Stephen all the time. That's just the type of guy Dan was. The way he carried himself and dealt with people was the way he was."
Doug Boles is the Director of Public Relations for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Before, Boles was a partner at Panther Racing -- the team that gave Wheldon his first ride in the series in 2002 and would bring him back to the team in 2009.
"I first met Dan in 2001 when he was in Indy Lights, but my first real memories are his first race at Chicago in 2002 and what a bright young face he was," Boles said. "He would go out and run and then after he debriefed he would watch our kids skateboard. There was that kid about him. Over time I left Panther and he left Panther and we would talk about a lot of our Panther stories together. And then this year I went to work for the Speedway, and he won the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.
"He loved nothing more than being an Indianapolis 500 champion. I watched him grow up from this kid at 24 to where he was today."
Wheldon arrived as a young kid with a colorful character. Over time, Wheldon may have changed, but he remained true to his personality.
"People really liked him because he didn't fit into that cookie-cutter mold of how you are supposed to act in this community," Boles said. "He was Dan Wheldon and he wanted to be Dan Wheldon and didn't change. To see how Dan Wheldon celebrated winning the Indianapolis 500 this year was just pure joy you saw from him.
"My heart this week is on what this meant to Dan Wheldon. He would want us to get beyond this and move on with the sport."
Sunday's ceremony was touching yet humorous. Fans were able to laugh over stories about Wheldon and moments when grown men openly cried and women wept.
Members of the IndyCar community -- drivers, teams, officials -- anyone with a credential were seated in chairs on the arena floor. Fans and other mourners virtually filled lower-level seating. All told there were probably 5,000 in attendance.
Long before it began, the Indianapolis Children's Choir sang songs followed later by bagpipes from the Gordon Pipers. The stage had both the Indy Racing League Trophy, which has since been retired by a different award but was there to signify Wheldon's 2005 series championship. Next to it was the Borg-Warner Trophy -- one of the world's most famous trophies that goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500. Two bottles of milk were placed in front of the trophy to signify his two victories in the world's biggest race.
Wheldon was one of 18 drivers to win the Indy 500 more than once.
The 2012 Dallara IndyCar, which Wheldon served as test driver for, was to the left of the mementos of Wheldon's glorious past signifying the role the driver played in the sport's future.
When the Indianapolis Children's Choir returned, they sang "Back Home Again in Indiana." Then, a lone Gordon Piper walked through the crowd toward the stage playing "Danny Boy" on bagpipes.
Reba McIntyre came out to perform "If I Had Only Known" as the celebration of Wheldon's life began.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was the first to speak, his first public appearance since announcing Wheldon's death. Jeff Belskus, CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation said, "Thank God we're all richer for having known Dan Wheldon and watched him race."
Panther Racing public relations director Mike Kitchell told tales about how Wheldon loved to steal cellphones and send prank text messages.
"No matter how much we want to be like Dan, no matter how many drivers want to emulate Dan, there was only one Dan, and we love you, bro,'" Kitchell said.
When Wheldon raced at Andretti Green Racing in 2004 and 2005, his teammates were Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan and Franchitti. The three recalled pranks they played on Wheldon.
"He was the only one of us that looked like he belonged in a boy band,'" Herta quipped about the driver from Emberton, England. "His million-dollar smile made up for an entire country's worth of bad dental work."
"I laughed at him and with him because I loved him," Kanaan said. "We have our memories and our feelings, and one day we'll be together again. I'll see you later and I love you my good friend."
As Franchitti looked among the crowd, he said Wheldon would be proud of the turnout.
"Dan would say, 'I told you, bro, I'm big in Indianapolis,'" Franchitti said. "Dan was the little brother we didn't want. We'd do anything to have him back."
Garth Brooks closed the ceremony by playing "The Dance" as photos of Wheldon's life and career flashed in the background. Again, grown men openly cried and women wept.
The event closed with a message from Wheldon's widow, Susie, flashed on the screen behind the stage.
"Although the last few days have been unbearable for our family the overwhelming support we have received are rays of sunshine during these dark days. I want to thank everyone for their notes, letters, gifts and flowers" -- Susie Wheldon.
Fellow Englishman and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson knew Wheldon since he was 8, racing go-karts in England. Wilson, himself, was injured in an IndyCar this season at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course when it ran off course during a practice and rode over some large bumps. Wilson suffered a season-ending compression fracture to his lower back.
"This puts it into perspective," Wilson said. "We all know as drivers that how safe we make these cars you will never get away with making it 100 percent safe. You hope it never happens to you and believe it won't happen to you, but in the far depths of your mind you know there is a possibility. It's definitely there, and you have to respect it. There are things we can learn as drivers and make sure Dan's death wasn't in vain and learn as much as possible and take the sport the next step to make it even better.
"It's a big shock to lose Dan and will affect people really close to him and that is who we think about right now," Wilson said. "This definitely knocks us back in disbelief that this can happen. It hits you and hits you hard, but I have to think back that Dan won Indy this year. How can that happen?"
Those are questions that will need to be answered over the coming days, weeks and months. Bernard called a drivers meeting for Monday to discuss recent events.
Wilson is annoyed by knee-jerk reactions calling for sweeping IndyCar changes after Wheldon's death.
"It's all rubbish," Wilson said. "People react and mourn in different ways. We have to take it one step at a time and make sure we do the right things. To say we can't race on ovals again is rubbish. We can race on ovals again. That is part of IndyCar racing. Maybe we need to look at how we race on ovals. There are lots of things I've seen and read that go against what Dan was about and what Dan was for and go against what we do our whole lives.
"It's front page news, and people are writing about what's wrong with IndyCar racing. Well, where were they when Dan won the Indy 500?"
At 22, Graham Rahal is one of IndyCar's brightest stars of the future and drove to victory in his first IndyCar start in 2008. He said Wheldon's loss "stings," and it is hard to lose someone that everyone in the sport felt connected to.
"But we're going to continue doing what Dan loved, and that's go racing and support each other and hopefully we can prevent this from happening in the future," Rahal said. "We'll see. Of all people you never expected this to happen to Dan. He was bulletproof. You feel every time you show up to the racetrack Dan will be there and you will see his smile and he will cheer everyone up.
"It's difficult to walk away realizing we will never see him again."