Racing community pays tribute to Wheldon in Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Dan Wheldon’s friends shed a few tears and shared lots of laughs Sunday.

Some couldn’t even bear to say goodbye a week after the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in a fiery crash at Las Vegas.

The 87-minute memorial service was a fitting tribute to Wheldon’s life, with former teammates and bosses providing dozens of stories about the roles Wheldon played _ fierce competitor on the track, comedian off of it and loving father and husband.

“At first Dan was pretty much the little brother we didn’t want,” four-time IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti said drawing laughter before pausing to collect his thoughts. “And now we’d do anything to have him back. We’ll miss you D.W.”

With an estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 filling Conseco Fieldhouse, it was a shared sentiment on yet another dark day in the racing world.

Hundreds of fans signed two large banners that will be given to Wheldon’s wife, Susie, who attended the ceremony but did not speak.

Some of the community’s most prominent organizations _ the Colts, Pacers, Indianapolis 500 Festival and Indiana General Assembly Motorsports Caucus _ sent floral arrangements. A few fans wore Wheldon No. 4 shirts from his days with Panther Racing, and others delivered flowers, contributed to the family trust fund or dropped off personal mementoes.

“Thank you for the many wonderful memories,” Rebecca Nix wrote on a folded flag with a photo of Wheldon pinned to it.

The day was full of emotion _ from the moment of silence organizers observed in honor of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who was killed Sunday in a crash at Malaysia, right down to Garth Brooks’ final song, “The Dance.”

But after touching eulogies from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus, most speakers interspersed light-hearted moments from Wheldon’s life with somber farewells because they said that’s how Wheldon would have wanted it.

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and one of Wheldon’s closest friends, recounted the pranks he, Franchitti and Bryan Herta pulled on Wheldon when the four were teammates with Michael Andretti’s team. He remembered stealing the left shoe from each of Wheldon’s pairs in Japan and shipping them back to the U.S., the time they threw everything out of the self-proclaimed neat-freak’s tidy locker and then had to help him clean it up and the countless times they joked about Wheldon’s “tight” racing suit.

From his supply of hair products to his boy-band looks, the teammates teased Wheldon mercilessly.

And everybody had some sort of funny story.

Panther Racing’s Mike Kitchel recalled the “phone-stealing” game often played with the public relations staff. Wheldon would take the staff’s cell phones and send messages to someone from the contact list, setting up meetings, lunches or worse.

Business manager Mickey Ryan called Wheldon the Imelda Marcos of race-car drivers.

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