Dan Wheldon’s biggest fans wanted one more chance to thank their favorite driver Monday.
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One-by-one they turned Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s main gate into a memorial for the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who was killed Sunday in a fiery crash at Las Vegas. Less than 24 hours later, the iron bars at IMS were decorated with flowers, notes of condolence, checkered flags, American and British flags and even half-gallon milk jugs, symbolic of the traditional victory drink at Indy.
”Dan was special, he was a hero,” said Nick Garside, a 37-year-old Indy resident who grew up in Wheldon’s home country of England. ”We had a group of British fans who would get together the last nine years in the plaza and fly our flags. Dan made us happy on two occasions. He gave me two of the happiest days of my life and one of the saddest as well.”
It was Indy where the 33-year-old IndyCar driver had his greatest successes and the most devoted fan-base outside his native country.
He won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Michael Andretti’s team in 2005 and won it again in May for Bryan Herta’s team — in what was, at the time, his only scheduled race of the season. Along with being the 18th driver to win Indy twice, Wheldon also finished as the runner-up in 2009 and 2010 with Panther Racing and finished third in 2004.
Fans loved him for more than winning races, though.
”He was an amazing driver, an amazing father, an amazing person,” said Paula Buis, a 41-year-old Indy resident who dropped off an American flag with flowers attached to it. ”He smiled wide and he was always happy around everybody. My heart goes out to everybody who loves him.”
Track officials lowered the flags above the main office to half-staff, and later Monday afternoon, they hung a 5-foot by 30-foot banner with Wheldon posing with Indy’s Borg-Warner trophy.
Fans were honoring Wheldon long before the banner went up.
One brought a pumpkin with the No. 77 carved into it, the number Wheldon was driving Sunday at Las Vegas. Another placed two green candles on a handwritten note, explaining that the candles represented his two Indy wins. Another added a child’s drawing with a heart colored in crayon with the words ”We Love You!”
The most poignant message: ”To Dan’s children and their mommy, you are in our thoughts and prayers.”
Garside hung a large Union Jack flag with the words ”Brit Corner” emblazoned on the cross of St. George. It dominated the scene at the gate.
”It feels better to have it here than in my garage,” he said.
It’s not the first time a makeshift memorial has popped up around the speedway.
Track historian Donald Davidson said the gate, which has remained in the same location at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road for 102 years, has been the scene of too many other memorials over the years.
But Wheldon, who lived several years full-time in nearby Carmel, Ind., had a special bond with the community.
In 2010, Wheldon convinced three other drivers to fly from the track to Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis, in Blackhawk helicopters. At the time, he was driving the National Guard car. He had also become increasingly affiliated with talking about Alzheimer’s Disease, an affliction his mother was diagnosed with in 2009.
And he was so enamored with Indy, that track officials sometimes joked he was part of their public relations staff.
”I don’t remember a driver, any driver, at any time saying as much about the Indianapolis 500 as Dan did,” Davidson said. ”He was constantly talking it up.”
Yet Wheldon remained a down-to-earth, fun-loving guy.
After winning his second 500 earlier this year, speedway spokesman Doug Boles said he was walking behind the Pagoda where posters of each year’s four race winners are encased in glass. When Wheldon saw his photo during the Brickyard 400, he was shocked.
”He said, ‘Hey, that’s me,”’ Boles said. ”It just really surprised him that a picture of him was up, and I had to take a picture of him pointing at the picture of himself. It was like he was 10 years old at Christmas.”
The steady stream of fans who turned out Monday wanted to see Wheldon win a third time.
Instead, they came out to remember the drive they embraced one more time.
Boles said the IndyCar Series is working out details for a public service that fans can attend. GoDaddy.com, which agreed to sponsor Wheldon’s car next year, has announced it will create a website with links to a Facebook page where fans can post thoughts and see a photo retrospective of Wheldon’s career.