ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Some days are better than others for Susie Wheldon, and there’s rarely any warning what will trigger the emotional roller coaster she’s been on since husband Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash in last year’s IndyCar finale.
A familiar coffee shop brings back a flood of memories; a song can make her sad. Most recently, it was a trip to the emergency room for a stomach bug 1-year-old son Oliver couldn’t shake. In an instant, she was reliving the frantic efforts to save the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner following the Oct. 16 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Almost immediately when I walked in, they brought me back to a room just to wait for a doctor, and I just sat there and I instantly felt panic,” she said. “I hadn’t been in a hospital since, and I just saw all these machines. Something like that, that I didn’t even think would be a big deal. It was just a really horrible thing.
“Took me back there again, just the panic of everything of that day.”
Seven months after the accident, Wheldon heads back to the race track at the Indianapolis 500 for ceremonies honoring the defending race winner. She’ll arrive Thursday and spend the weekend, accompanied by her two sons, who were present for their dad’s surprise win last year, but isn’t sure if she’ll attend Sunday’s race. In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Wheldon said she’s just not sure how she’ll handle the tumult of returning to the track her husband loved so much.
She couldn’t do it in March, when she left town rather than face the pain of IndyCar’s season opener in St. Petersburg, where she still resides in the family home with Oliver and 3-year-old Sebastian.
“I’m ready. I think I’m ready, or I have to be ready, because it’s something that I want to do and I want to be able to be a part of that for Dan as far as having the boys there,” she said. “His family is the most important part of his legacy, so we want to be there to honor him in that way as far as him being last year’s winner and everything about that race that he loved so much. I feel like it’s important for me to be there, and I’m trying to prepare myself as much as possible.”
Dan Wheldon, who also won the 500 in 2005, will be remembered on the race day ticket that features him pouring the traditional winner’s bottle of milk over his head in victory lane last year. His race-winning car was on display in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum last week, will be on the Pagoda Plaza (a famed area of the race track) on Saturday and will be driven by car owner Bryan Herta in a lap of honor during Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies.
Fans entering the track Sunday will be given a pair of white sunglasses, Dan’s preference, to wear during tributes on the parade lap, lap 26 and lap 98, which recognize the numbers of his winning cars.
“I am a bit nervous for her, worried it is really going to tear her heart out because it’s such a special place for Dan,” Dixon said. “It held a lot of big memories, and I think it is going to be incredibly hard. But the one thing is, she wants to do what Dan wants her to do, and he’d want her to be holding her head up high and remembering the good times.”
The Dixons have rallied around Wheldon and her sons since the accident, even temporarily relocating to St. Petersburg during the offseason. They tried to maintain a steady pace of outings and vacations, but knew Wheldon would eventually need to return to a routine for both the boys and her own healing process. They returned to Indianapolis before the start of the season, but Emma and another friend schedule a girls’ getaway every two months to give Wheldon something to look forward to. Their last trip was the Kentucky Derby earlier this month.
Dixon witnessed firsthand the various stages of grief — “shock, disbelief, and ‘this can’t be happening’ and then around six months, the ‘Oh my God, I want him back,’ missing him stage” — and knows that Wheldon has more dark days than bright. Although they’ve laughed and enjoyed their getaways, Dixon said she’s seen only sadness in Wheldon’s eyes on all but one occasion.