A year ago this week, Dan Wheldon sat at a small round table in the back of the room during the annual Indianapolis 500 Media Day and smiled like a fox as reporters and photographers walked by him and assembled three- and four-deep nearby to speak to drivers Danica Patrick, Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Wheldon knew that many of the reporters didn’t give him a chance to win the 100th anniversary edition of the Indy 500 three days later. After all, it was only the first race of the season for the former IZOD IndyCar Series champ. And his humble team — fielded by good friend and former teammate Bryan Herta — was small, new and underfunded compared to the likes of the 15-time Indy-winning Penske Racing, Target Ganassi or even Andretti Autosport, for whom he won his first Indy 500 title in 2005.
“You’re damn right we can win this,’’ Wheldon said, flashing a huge grin and a don’t-you-underestimate-me laugh to the two of us reporters who knew better.
“I truly believe we can do this.’’
And he did — in spectacular fashion — taking the lead only 100 yards before the checkered flag.
And then five months later, the 34-year-old was gone, killed in a horrifying multicar crash in the opening laps of the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
As the series prepares for Sunday’s Indy 500 at Wheldon’s favorite place, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it will be the first time in 66 years that the defending Indy 500 winner did not live long enough to attempt to defend his victory.
Wheldon, however, will very much be on the minds and in the hearts of both competitors and fans this weekend.
As the 300,000 or so spectators enter Speedway Sunday for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, they will receive white cardboard sunglasses — replicas of those preferred by last year’s winner.
As they come through the front gate, they will pass under a two-story tall banner picturing Wheldon. As is the case with all defending winners, his face is on the tickets — a photo of him dripping winner’s milk in victory circle.
Herta will make a pace lap in Wheldon’s winning car.
“You drive in the front gate on 16th Street and there’s this big picture smiling away at you,’’ said two-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti, a close friend of Wheldon’s.
“Then I got to the bus lot and his bus was always two across from mine and it’s a different bus this year. There are days — good or bad — and you’re out talking and there’d come Dan bounding along giving everyone a hard time. Everyone is thinking of him — drivers, teams — and you can’t walk 10 feet without seeing someone in a Lionheart shirt or someone asking you to sign a picture of Dan. He’s never far away.
“It’s important to recognize Dan’s achievements at the speedway but more important, what he meant to the fans."
With the couple’s children — 3-year-old Sebastian and 1-year-old Oliver looking on — Wheldon’s widow Susie accepted his winner’s ring Thursday in a private ceremony held inside the Speedway. Wearing a gold necklace that said “Dan” and another bearing the front part of Wheldon’s 2005 Indy 500 winner’s ring, she thanked the speedway and all of the thousands of fans that have “offered me and our family comfort” in the last seven months.
She told the Associated Press this week that although she knew it would be difficult, she needed to be in Indianapolis this week.
“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 told the AP. "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."
For Wheldon’s friends and former competitors, this week is tough knowing how much Indianapolis — above all other tracks — meant to the fun-loving Brit who hadn’t finished worse than runner-up since 2009 and whose six top-five finishes in nine starts is among the best finishing percentages ever in the race.
“I learned this from Dan,’’ said another of his close friends, Tony Kanaan. “He was pretty good around this place and every time he was here he was like a little kid watching everything.
‘Oh man, look at the grandstands, look at the flags, look at this picture on the pagoda’ he’d say, and I’m taking that same approach. I said in (the) beginning of year, two (of the) toughest races for me were St. Pete because that’s where Dan lived, and this one because he is the defending champion.
“I hope after this race I can put a closure on how much I suffer because he is not around and move on and remember him for the good times we had. It will be very emotional Saturday in the public drivers’ meeting when he was supposed to get his trophy and his ring. And on Sunday."
Kanaan adds that he can think of a "great tribute" to Wheldon.
“I can win the race and hopefully my face will be next to his on the trophy," he said with a laugh.