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Susie Wheldon heads to Indy 500 to honor husband

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) Some days are better than others for Susie Wheldon, and there's rarely any warning what will trigger the emotional roller coaster she's been on since husband Dan Wheldon's fatal crash in last year's IndyCar finale.

A familiar coffee shop brings back a flood of memories; a song can make her sad. Most recently, it was a trip to the emergency room for a stomach bug 1-year-old son Oliver couldn't shake. In an instant, she was reliving the frantic efforts to save the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner following the Oct. 16 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"Almost immediately when I walked in, they brought me back to a room just to wait for a doctor, and I just sat there and I instantly felt panic," she said. "I hadn't been in a hospital since, and I just saw all these machines. Something like that, that I didn't even think would be a big deal. It was just a really horrible thing.

"Took me back there again, just the panic of everything of that day."

Seven months after the accident, Wheldon heads back to the race track at the Indianapolis 500 for ceremonies honoring the defending race winner. She'll arrive Thursday and spend the weekend, accompanied by her two sons, who were present for their dad's surprise win last year, but isn't sure if she'll attend Sunday's race. In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Wheldon said she's just not sure how she'll handle the tumult of returning to the track her husband loved so much.

She couldn't do it in March, when she left town rather than face the pain of IndyCar's season opener in St. Petersburg, where she still resides in the family home with Oliver and 3-year-old Sebastian.

But Indy?

"I'm ready. I think I'm ready, or I have to be ready, because it's something that I want to do and I want to be able to be a part of that for Dan as far as having the boys there," she said. "His family is the most important part of his legacy, so we want to be there to honor him in that way as far as him being last year's winner and everything about that race that he loved so much. I feel like it's important for me to be there, and I'm trying to prepare myself as much as possible."

Dan Wheldon, who also won the 500 in 2005, will be remembered on the race day ticket that features him pouring the traditional winner's bottle of milk over his head in victory lane last year. His race-winning car was on display in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum last week, will be on the Pagoda Plaza (a famed area of the race track) on Saturday and will be driven by car owner Bryan Herta in a lap of honor during Sunday's pre-race ceremonies.

Fans entering the track Sunday will be given a pair of white sunglasses, Dan's preference, to wear during tributes on the parade lap, lap 26 and lap 98, which recognize the numbers of his winning cars.

Susie Wheldon is scheduled to participate in Saturday's public drivers meeting and will accept the Champion of Champions ring on behalf of Wheldon's 2011 victory in a ceremony Thursday afternoon.

Emma Dixon, wife of driver Scott Dixon and close friend of Susie, is hopeful Wheldon can manage the many emotions this weekend will bring.

"I am a bit nervous for her, worried it is really going to tear her heart out because it's such a special place for Dan," Dixon said. "It held a lot of big memories, and I think it is going to be incredibly hard. But the one thing is, she wants to do what Dan wants her to do, and he'd want her to be holding her head up high and remembering the good times."

The Dixons have rallied around Wheldon and her sons since the accident, even temporarily relocating to St. Petersburg during the offseason. They tried to maintain a steady pace of outings and vacations, but knew Wheldon would eventually need to return to a routine for both the boys and her own healing process. They returned to Indianapolis before the start of the season, but Emma and another friend schedule a girls' getaway every two months to give Wheldon something to look forward to. Their last trip was the Kentucky Derby earlier this month.

Dixon witnessed firsthand the various stages of grief - "shock, disbelief, and `this can't be happening' and then around six months, the `Oh my God, I want him back,' missing him stage" - and knows that Wheldon has more dark days than bright. Although they've laughed and enjoyed their getaways, Dixon said she's seen only sadness in Wheldon's eyes on all but one occasion.

"Her eyes have never been the same since this happened. It was always Dan for her; they were so mad for each other and he was her absolute dream man," Dixon said. "And Dan was entering into the best times of his career. He was getting a fast car, he was an amazing driver, and this is not how it should be. He's meant to be here adoring his children, and he loved his family and they were so happy.

"They really did have the world at their feet, and it got ripped away from them and it's desperately unfair."

Race car drivers often say they accept the risks involved with their profession, and their loved ones understand that accidents sometimes happen with dire consequences. But constant safety improvements have dramatically reduced fatalities, and IndyCar had just three driver deaths since this league began in 1996.

The last fatality was Paul Dana, in 2006, during the warm-up session for the season opener at Homestead. Wheldon went on to win that race later the same day.

So, sure, the wives and girlfriends know bad things can happen when cars are on the track at very high speeds. But it's not something Susie Wheldon was dwelling on when her husband strapped into his car last October.

Dan Wheldon didn't have a full-time job last year; he refused to settle for a ride that didn't give him a chance to win and instead took the season off. He stayed home with his young family. Oliver was born last March, two months before Dan headed back to Indianapolis with Herta because he believed he could win in that car. And he did, inheriting the lead when rookie JR Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn.

"That is one of the things that I loved about Dan - he believed in himself," his wife said. "He definitely rallied and got everybody around him on fire. It was a little team, it was their second start at Indy and probably not a lot of people thought they had a shot at winning that race."

From there, Dan Wheldon settled into a summer of testing IndyCar's new car during Dallara's development and working as a commentator for some of the race broadcasts. Things picked up as the season wound down, with Wheldon moving closer to completing a deal to return to Andretti Autosport in a full-time ride in 2012 as Danica Patrick's replacement.

Then he agreed to enter the $5 million challenge being offered by IndyCar to any outside driver who could come from the back of the field to win the season finale at Las Vegas. When no driver from any other series accepted the challenge, Wheldon was ruled eligible because he wasn't a full-time IndyCar driver.

He ran Kentucky two weeks earlier as a warm-up, then went into Las Vegas convinced he could win the race.

The entire weekend was festive - on a whim, Dan and Susie got each other's initials tattooed on their wrists the night before the race. Never did anyone think the day would end in tragedy.

It happened quickly, a fiery 15-car accident just minutes after the start, and it was immediately apparent that Wheldon was seriously injured.

Susie Wheldon does not discuss the events of that day. And if she second-guesses his participation, she doesn't let on.

"No, not mad that he did that race. No," she said quietly.

But the reality is the race changed her life. She's now a 33-year-old widow, with two toddlers who will never know their father. His family is in England, her parents in North Carolina, and she's essentially alone trying to pick up the pieces and move forward.

This isn't the life she imagined - "That's actually a phrase we've used, this isn't how it was supposed to be," said Emma Dixon - and Wheldon has been angry about different things during her stages of grief, but not at Dan, at least not yet.

"Maybe that will come later, I don't know," she said. "We definitely shared something. It sounds silly to say because it sounds so cliche, but I know a lot of people don't experience that, what we had. I feel lucky (but) our four years of being married is like a second (in time). I get angry sometimes at that, that I wish we could have grown old together.

"I am thankful just for everything that we do have. Did have. Two beautiful children. We had an amazing life together and I know most people don't experience that in a lifetime. That's something that I hold on to."

Wheldon is also grateful for the support she's received from inside the racing community - an auction started by Graham Rahal after the accident raised $627,203 - and she's been touched by fans who sent her thoughtful notes about her husband. She read every one, replied with hand-written thank you letters and saved them all to one day show her sons.

"There's a lot of times, I think, that when people pass away everybody that's left sometimes can romanticize about the idea of what that person was or what they did," she said. "With Dan, he really was that amazing guy. It wasn't like you're kind of embellishing because everyone wants to say good things about someone when they're not here. He really was that guy.

"He was an incredible human being. He was obviously a fierce competitor, but he was an even better person. That's not an exaggeration."