No rhyme or reason: Wheldon taken far too soon

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(To commemorate today’s fifth anniversary of the tragic passing of Dan Wheldon, team owner Sam Schmidt shares his memories of the two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 Verizon IndyCar Series champion from “Lionheart -- Remembering Dan Wheldon.”)

My first experience with Dan was as an INDYCAR team owner in 2001. Indy Lights was being formed for 2002 and, since I’d been hurt in 2000, we really only ran full-time in INDYCAR in 2001 with Davey Hamilton and 2002 with Richie Hearn. We are constantly looking for new talent, whether it was for Indy Lights or INDYCAR, so I watched closely when he finished second in the Indy Lights championship in 2001.

The first thing that struck me was that he was quite the entertainer and quite the personality even back then. He was talented as a driver, obviously, but he was a huge character, too. He also did something I thought was incredibly smart. So many times you see younger drivers with talent who work their tails off but don’t have a great deal of personal funding. They get to the point where they’re about to graduate from Lights to INDYCAR, and they throw everything they have at the Indianapolis 500. The logic is that if they make a name for themselves at Indy, their careers will be set. It’s a bit unrealistic because of the level of competition at Indy and the competitive nature of the race. Everybody spends a lot of money at Indy, and everybody wants to win it. The truth is, as a rookie in a one-off at Indy, winning or even placing well enough to draw attention is next to impossible.

Dan was really smart. He took the money that would’ve been used on an Indy program and brought it to Panther Racing in 2002. He bought two races – Chicagoland and Texas – in which he knew he could excel in that format with the team. Immediately, I knew this was a guy who was smart enough to size up his own situation – whether that be funding or talent or whatever – and put himself in the best possible position to do well, make a good impression, and then leverage those results. He did well enough at those two races – 10th at Chicagoland and 15th at Texas – to align himself with Michael Andretti for a full-season deal in 2003. The rest is history.

Remembering Dan Wheldon: LionheartDan stepped into Michael’s program when Andretti had decent funding from Honda and a competitive advantage. Dan was a sponsor’s dream. Klein Tools and Jim Beam didn’t leave the sport because of a lack of attention they received through Dan, that’s for sure. At that time, he also firmly embedded himself with Honda, and that was further reinforced when he won for them at Motegi in 2004 – Honda’s first Indy car win at its own facility.

When I come across kids today in the Mazda Road to Indy program, their first question to me is, “How can I possibly become a paid driver in INDYCAR if my parents don’t have $20 million?” I use Dan Wheldon as the example of someone who didn’t have a ton of money but was very methodical about every step. Dan maximized everything he had each step.

During the time that Dan first established himself in the IndyCar Series, our team was only doing Indy Lights and a one-off at the Indy 500 every year, so there wasn’t much personal interaction between Dan and myself. But when we decided to come back to INDYCAR full-time in 2011, we really wanted Dan to drive for us. At the time, we had a full-season commitment from Alex Tagliani, and we were trying to grow that to two cars in 2012. One thing led to another in 2011, and Dan ended up joining us for Indy through a technical partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport.

We knew we had a fast package that year at Indy in our collaboration with Bryan’s team. Bryan had a long-term relationship with Honda – and was a former teammate of Dan’s – so he had that connection with him. Honestly, I couldn’t believe he was available for the job as a one-off. Alex and Townsend Bell would drive the Schmidt cars and Dan would drive the Herta car, but we were essentially a single team, since we were sharing everything. We did all the engineering and prep work together. Our guys prepared the No. 98 chassis and leased it to Bryan.

It was the first time I really got to spend time with Dan and get to know him after hours. I’m really disappointed that I wasn’t around for the crazy days of his career in the mid-2000s, but I heard all the stories. I missed some good parties, and I know I would’ve enjoyed them as much as everyone else did.

The month of May was phenomenal. All three guys were fantastic throughout the month. It seems like every day they were all in the top five on the time sheets. We had a great deal of momentum and optimism, even going up against the big dogs. That created a confident setting. It also spun out a few of the competitors in the paddock, because they couldn’t figure out why we were so fast. It wasn’t just a fluke when Alex won the pole position and Dan and Townsend qualified on the second row. We had been fast every day leading up to that.

On the track, throughout the month, Dan Wheldon shined like I couldn’t believe. It was a great team effort, but a lot of that could be attributed to Dan. He had a senior, veteran attitude of nurturing and assisting. He was never so competitive that he wouldn’t work with everyone as a team. It was a one-off; he had every right to not show everyone all of his cards, but he did. It benefited the entire team throughout the month.

Dan was very gracious. I took it all in at the time, just admiring what he was doing for us and how much he put into it. He was always so polite and nice to every fan – especially kids. If you got an autograph from Dan Wheldon, you felt like you really knew him. He made you feel included and involved in what he was doing. You don’t always see that at this level when people have been doing it for that long. Dan never forgot how hard he worked to get to where he was and, at the time, he was working hard to get back to where he had been.

I didn’t expect any of that from Dan. I was hoping for it – I was hoping he would step in and be fully engaged and into it – but I didn’t know him well enough to expect it. But he was beyond my wildest dreams. He contributed to the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, he was fully involved in sponsorship activities, he did media events and fan appearances – he did everything in a complete, professional way that I only could have dreamed he would.

On race day, he reminded me of the way Arie Luyendyk was when I was his teammate in 1999. He was just methodical all day long. He didn’t put his car in a position that would create too much risk. He constantly evolved with the car and adapted to situations around him. He didn’t care if he led a single lap until the last one. I can’t tell you how much patience that takes. I never had that as a driver. I blew up an engine and crashed twice in my three Indy 500s because I didn’t have that kind of patience. If my car was fast, I was going to the front now. That was my problem. I could see that Dan wasn’t that way.

All month long, he was concerned with qualifying well and then being in position to win at the end. He did a fantastic job at both. Anybody who has raced at Indy will tell you that from your first laps there, it either fits you like a glove and you can’t wait to get back there next year, or you hate it. Dan loved the place. He knew what to do there in every situation.

That unique situation I spoke of earlier – being successful as a one-off at Indy – Dan did it. Because of it, he found full-time employment for 2012. Unfortunately, we never could have imagined what would happen a few months later.

Las Vegas is hard for me to talk about. Fifteen years after my accident, I’m still a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I am witness every day to people our foundation is helping. Through that and continuing with racing and being able to watch my kids grow up, I’m aware of the reasons my situation happened and why I’m in this wheelchair. But I constantly think back to 2011 and can’t for the life of me come up with a reason for it.

We actually had a bad weekend leading up to the race, but Dan never got down or frustrated. We took the same chassis we used to win the pole at Indy to Las Vegas. We meticulously labeled every part, and that’s how Dan’s car was built for Vegas. He wasn’t fast at all in practice. In fact, he was way back in the pack. We were pulling our hair out all weekend. Dan was flat-out but couldn’t go any faster.

We changed a bunch of stuff leading up to qualifying, but we still qualified 29th out of 34 cars. With Dan’s constant encouragement, we decided the night before the race to just tear it down and take everything back to the tub. We didn’t know what we’d done wrong, but the guys stayed at the track for the better part of the night and took the car entirely apart and put it back together again. It was all hands on deck. We had to start last for the promotion – last to first to win a $5 million bonus – so we thought, “If this car wakes up like it did at Indy and becomes a rocket, then by all means, go to the front.” But I told Dan that if it was anything like it was in practice, don’t risk anything. Just hang at the back and have a good day.

But by lap five, he’d passed 10 cars. He came on the radio hooting and yelling. “This thing is fantastic,” he said. “I don’t know what you did to it, but the speed is back. I can go anywhere and do anything. I can drive around any of these guys.” He was in his element and having a blast.

There’s no rhyme or reason to what happened that day. There’s nothing I can figure out about why something like that happens. There’s no silver lining. I’ve searched for it, but I can’t find it. It was devastating to everyone involved with the team. It was devastating to everyone who knew Dan. But mostly it was devastating to (his wife) Susie and Dan’s family.

I almost quit Indy car racing right there on the spot. It had been 10 years since Davey had his accident in one of my cars, and then this. I don’t ever want to have that feeling again. It was two or three weeks later that my wife Sheila said, “At the end of the day, what would Dan have wanted you to do?” The answer is he’d want me to pick it up and get back out there. I returned because I knew it’s what Dan would’ve wanted.

Dan was an electric personality. He never had a bad day in the time I knew him. It’s been said before, but I’ll repeat it: There won’t be another Dan Wheldon. He was the complete package. He had talent, intelligence, skill, speed and a full understanding of the business of racing.

He also had a great love of and commitment to his family. I knew the Dan Wheldon everyone said had evolved and grown into a more mature family man. We had many very quiet conversations about our families, and there was no doubt in my mind that his focus and commitment was on them.  

I’m a better person for having known Dan, even if it was only for a brief time. I believe everyone else who knew him feels the same way, and rightfully so.

“Lionheart – Remembering Dan Wheldon” by Andy Hallbery and Jeff Olson may be purchased here or here for $49.95. A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association and The Dan Wheldon Foundation.

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