“Her eyes have never been the same since this happened. It was always Dan for her; they were so mad for each other and he was her absolute dream man,” Dixon said. “And Dan was entering into the best times of his career. He was getting a fast car, he was an amazing driver, and this is not how it should be. He’s meant to be here adoring his children, and he loved his family and they were so happy.
“They really did have the world at their feet, and it got ripped away from them and it’s desperately unfair.”
Race car drivers often say they accept the risks involved with their profession, and their loved ones understand that accidents sometimes happen with dire consequences. But constant safety improvements have dramatically reduced fatalities, and IndyCar had just three driver deaths since this league began in 1996.
The last fatality was Paul Dana, in 2006, during the warm-up session for the season opener at Homestead. Wheldon went on to win that race later the same day.
So, sure, the wives and girlfriends know bad things can happen when cars are on the track at very high speeds. But it’s not something Susie Wheldon was dwelling on when her husband strapped into his car last October.
Dan Wheldon didn’t have a full-time job last year; he refused to settle for a ride that didn’t give him a chance to win and instead took the season off. He stayed home with his young family. Oliver was born last March, two months before Dan headed back to Indianapolis with Herta because he believed he could win in that car. And he did, inheriting the lead when rookie JR Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn.
“That is one of the things that I loved about Dan _ he believed in himself,” his wife said. “He definitely rallied and got everybody around him on fire. It was a little team, it was their second start at Indy and probably not a lot of people thought they had a shot at winning that race.”
From there, Dan Wheldon settled into a summer of testing IndyCar’s new car during Dallara’s development and working as a commentator for some of the race broadcasts. Things picked up as the season wound down, with Wheldon moving closer to completing a deal to return to Andretti Autosport in a full-time ride in 2012 as Danica Patrick’s replacement.
Then he agreed to enter the $5 million challenge being offered by IndyCar to any outside driver who could come from the back of the field to win the season finale at Las Vegas. When no driver from any other series accepted the challenge, Wheldon was ruled eligible because he wasn’t a full-time IndyCar driver.
He ran Kentucky two weeks earlier as a warm-up, then went into Las Vegas convinced he could win the race.
It happened quickly, a fiery 15-car accident just minutes after the start, and it was immediately apparent that Wheldon was seriously injured.
Susie Wheldon does not discuss the events of that day. And if she second-guesses his participation, she doesn’t let on.
“No, not mad that he did that race. No,” she said quietly.
But the reality is the race changed her life. She’s now a 33-year-old widow, with two toddlers who will never know their father. His family is in England, her parents in North Carolina, and she’s essentially alone trying to pick up the pieces and move forward.