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Dario, Tony and Bryan remember Dan Wheldon at public memorial

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan

Dario, Tony and Bryan remember Dan Wheldon at public memorial

Andrew Herta
Bryan Herta Autosport
October 31, 2011

As thousands of fans solemnly filed into Conseco Fieldhouse on a sunny afternoon in Indianapolis for a public memorial service for Dan Wheldon, small groups would pause to absorb the larger-than-life image of the Indianapolis 500 champion in the arena’s entry.

“He was always smiling, just like in that picture,” a teenager said, one hand gripping her father’s and the other clutching a “hero card” that Wheldon autographed a few days before claiming his second Indy 500 victory in May.

Not only was Dan Wheldon the sport’s 2005 champion, he was a 24/7 champion of the sport. That theme was repeated by the 10 speakers during the 90-minute program.

“The victories and the accolades, they didn’t define him,” INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said in opening remarks. “His strong character, his enthusiastic approach to life and the love of family, friends and fans did. There was a reason he was a fan favorite. He loved life and it always showed.”

A day earlier, family, friends and the community of his adopted home of St. Petersburg, Fla., overflowed First Presbyterian Church for his funeral. Wheldon died from injuries suffered in a race crash Oct. 16. He is survived by his wife, Susie, and two young sons.

On the arena’s stage, Bernard motioned to the 2012 race car that this summer Wheldon validated for performance and safety on a variety of racetracks and called for unity among teams, drivers and the series to strive to protect and improve the sport Wheldon loved.

“It was not surprising Dan was involved,” Bernard said of the program that is continuing with engine manufacturer testing this fall. “His commitment to improving and advancing every aspect of our sport was well known.The innovations that emerge from those efforts can have repercussions not just on racetracks but on our highways and in our passenger cars. Just another measure of the impact that Dan had on our lives and INDYCAR.”

Musical performances also were poignant during the ceremony. Reba McEntire sang “If I Had Only Known” at the start of the service, while rising country music stars The Band Perry performed “Amazing Grace.” Garth Brooks closed the ceremony with an acoustic version of his hit “The Dance.”

Also performing were the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and the Gordon Pipers bagpipe group, an Indianapolis Motor Speedway tradition during Wheldon’s beloved Month of May. A single bagpiper made his way down the center aisle and exited playing the haunting “Danny Boy.”

A slide show of still photos from throughout Wheldon’s life captured his successes, flair, spirit and warmth, and a video of thanks from his family for the outpouring of support was shown.

Decorating the stage were the Borg-Warner Trophy awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis 500 winner’s wreath, two bottles of milk signifying Wheldon’s two Indy 500 victories, the Indy Racing League championship trophy that Wheldon won in 2005 and a 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series car painted in the St. George’s cross of Wheldon’s native England.

Speakers, including Wheldon’s longtime managers and friends Mickey Ryan and Adrian Sussmann of GP Sports Management and Panther Racing public relations director Mike Kitchel, shared anecdotes of the former Carmel, Ind., resident’s proclivity for phone pranks and his neatness.

“He was the little brother we didn’t want,” four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti said in jest as he was joined on the stage “to enter the ‘No Cry Zone’ ” by Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta.

Quipped Herta: “He was the only one of us that looked like he belonged in a boy band. His million-dollar smile made up for an entire country’s worth of bad dental work.”

The trio wore Wheldon’s 2005 championship ring that he presented them, and Franchitti wore white shoes in his honor.

“I’m grateful for the time we got to spend with him on Earth,” Kanaan said following the laughter. “Although that time here is done, our time together is not over. We have our memories. We have our feelings. And one day we will be together again.

“For that reason, I’m not saying goodbye to Dan. Not today. And not ever. Goodbye is final, and our friendship won’t end. So for now, I’m simply saying I’ll see you later. I love you.”

As Herta shared with the audience, he witnessed a transformation in Wheldon between his 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500 victories that “made him complete.” It was his zest for life and love of family and friends, Herta said, that will live in the hearts of everyone.

Also speaking at the service were Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus. INDYCAR Ministries chaplain also offered condolences to the family of Michael Wanser — the young son of Target Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Barry Wanser — who died earlier in the day from his battle with leukemia.

The public was invited to leave messages on large banners that flanked the entry photograph. Many brought flowers, photos and other mementos.

The Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund has been established for the financial security of Wheldon’s family. The public can make contributions to the Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund at:

Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Suite 1000
Indianapolis, IN 46204

All Fifth Third Bank branches also are accepting contributions in person, which will be routed to the account, and credit card donations can be made via http://www.danwheldonmemorial.com/donate.html

The Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund is a taxable trust fund for the benefit of the Wheldon family. Contributions to it are not considered charitable contributions, and could have federal gift tax consequences. Please consult your own legal or tax advisors regarding these potential tax consequences.

A memorial site, which includes a Facebook link to leave condolences and remembrances and a career photo retrospective, can be found at http://www.danwheldonmemorial.com.

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