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BENNER: My Wheldon encounter was textbook Dan Wheldon

October 22, 2011

In the wake of Dan Wheldon’s tragic passing, it seems we all have our Dan Wheldon stories to tell.

As do I.

About a month ago, I had just left a meeting at the JW Marriott and was on the hotel escalator leading from the lobby to the second floor skywalk entrance. As I neared the top, I looked behind and there, just a few steps below, was none other than Wheldon, by himself.

I waited at the top, extended my hand and introduced myself.

Per his well-documented nature, Wheldon couldn’t have been more courteous or friendly. We had a short but pleasant chat about the new IndyCar he had been testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—“it’s quieter, but I love it and the fans are going to love it,” he enthused—as well as his second Indianapolis 500 triumph last May—“I’m still on a high,” he smiled—and finally his prospects for a full-time ride in 2012.

“I’m pretty sure something is going to come together,” he said.

I also asked him about his designation as the driver who would be in pursuit of the $5 million bonus in the season-ending IndyCar race at Las Vegas.

“Can’t wait,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting. We’ll give it a go and give ’em a show.”

With that, I wished him well. I returned to my office thinking about this pleasant chance meeting with a driver/celebrity whose face adorns one of the world’s most significant sporting prizes—the Borg-Warner Trophy—not once, but twice.

To be honest, I was not a Wheldon fan when he burst upon the open-wheel scene in the early 2000s, culminating in the 2005 season when he won his first Indy 500 and the Indy Racing League championship. He was a brash Brit and I prefer my IndyCar drivers to be American (with the notable exception of Brazilian Tony Kanaan) and at least a little humble.

But when his career took a tumble and he eventually lost his full-time ride, I couldn’t help but notice how well Wheldon took it in stride. His second Indy victory this past May and the improbable way it came about (courtesy of humble American J.R. Hildebrand’s last-turn crash) for a low-budget team was the stuff of Indy lore.

And even though relegated to the television broadcast booth for the next race, Wheldon never bellyached about his circumstances and instead placed his focus on his TV work (he was excellent, by the way) and serving as the test driver for the new IndyCar to debut next year.

During our little chat, I told Wheldon I admired how well he had handled both the highs and the lows.

“No complaints, man,” he replied. “Life is good.”

And now that life is gone. Wheldon was a mere passenger in a race-car-turned-low-flying missile on the 11th lap of what could have been another defining moment of his career and a celebratory end to the IndyCar season.

Instead, it was the worst of all possible circumstances. And Wheldon’s tragic death placed IndyCar—striving so desperately to carve out a renewed place in the national sports spotlight—under siege.

Should Indy cars be racing on high-banked ovals? Were there too many cars (34) on the starting grid in Las Vegas? Why didn’t anyone heed the warnings of potential disaster from the drivers themselves? Should IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard have dangled that $5 million payoff in front of Wheldon? (None other than the legendary Mario Andretti said those who believe Wheldon would drive any differently or take unnecessary risks because of the money “offend his honor.”)

As in the aftermath of anything like this, there will be second-guessing but also appropriate self-examination. For those of us who are passionate about open-wheel racing in general and the Indianapolis 500 in particular, Wheldon’s death poses serious questions that must be addressed to protect and ultimately enhance the long-term viability of the sport.

In many ways, because of safety measures long in place, we have become numb to the inherent risks. Though certainly nothing to the measure of the horrific Vegas multi-car pileup, we have witnessed astonishing crashes from which drivers have emerged to race again, often within hours.

Yet the fact that fatalities and serious injuries are no longer commonplace does not mean they should be accepted. If a safer IndyCar series emerges from this, Dan Wheldon will not have died in vain.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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