Even as Dan Wheldon hoisted the iconic Borg-Warner trophy and anticipated the multi-million dollar payday for winning the Indianapolis 500, he knew that it wasn’t what he got on that Sunday afternoon, but what he gave, that will forever define the moment for him.
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"My dad told me, ‘You even made mum cry,’" Wheldon, 32, recalled last week.
Clive and Sue Wheldon watched on television from Wheldon’s childhood home in Emberton, England, as their oldest son celebrated his second Indy 500 victory in six years.
He would have preferred splashing the traditional bottle of milk on his parents in Indy’s famous victory circle. But because Wheldon’s mother, Sue, 57, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, they didn’t make the trip. So Wheldon did the next best thing.
He gave them a completely joyful, worry-free moment in time.
It was the perfect escape from the cruel condition that has muddled memories and cheated the family of a more predictable future with its "go-to girl," as Wheldon describes his mom.
It’s possible — perhaps likely — that because of the memory and cognitive degeneration caused by Alzheimer’s, Sue Wheldon won’t even remember the details of that great day in the coming months. But for yet another afternoon, she was the proudest mom in the world. All was right in the Wheldon world.
"It’s one of those things where you have to just live life in the moment, because you just never know," Wheldon explained this week back at his St. Petersburg, Fla., home after a victory press tour across the country.
"Did I think my mum would be diagnosed with this two years ago (at age 55)? No. So as you can imagine, this was important to me. It was a lot more emotional even than just winning the biggest race in the world."
Fortunately, two of Wheldon’s four younger siblings were in Indianapolis to celebrate the dramatic and heart-warming win, his brother Elliott and the youngest of the Wheldons’ five kids, 17-year old Holly.
"Obviously it is such a special thing to win the Indianapolis 500, but it happened at such a special time for us," said Wheldon, who describes his family as especially close-knit, exemplified by his parents’ 37-year marriage.
It is also what has made the Alzheimer’s diagnosis so much more challenging and disheartening. Through all of his media appearances in the days since his win, Wheldon has been careful to note that it wasn’t just for his mother, but for his father, her constant caregiver and companion. And for his three younger brothers and sister Holly, who could never have anticipated this abrupt change in family normalcy.
And for all the people and families affected by Alzheimer’s disease now and those that will be in the future.
There are currently 5.4 million people diagnosed with the disease and triple that number of unpaid caregivers — mostly family and friends — according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
"From what I understand, the Alzheimer’s Association doesn’t just let anybody speak on their behalf," Wheldon said. "So to represent them and have their logo on my helmet is a real honor.
"I’m happy to get the word out because I think they are very close to being able to do some great things with not only a cure for Alzheimer’s but also some tests to detect the disease earlier."
Generally speaking, race car drivers are generous souls and Wheldon, in particular, has given his time, lent his name and donated money to help charities.
The Indianapolis 500 is the only race Wheldon is scheduled to compete in this year — his one shot at a soap box for this important cause. And with an intangible urgency motivating Wheldon, he and his small Bryan Herta Autosport team defeated the odds-on favorite mega-teams.
Tuesday night, his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg celebrated and honored Wheldon’s incredible story with a "Victory Party" downtown. The Mayor spoke, a rock band performed and throngs of fans helped Wheldon celebrate.
The event was free, but donations were collected at the door and given to the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter.
"When something in your life suddenly changes. … I just wanted to do more," Wheldon said.
"This is something for me that is obviously, very, very, very personal.