I have to admit that for a long time I wasn't a big fan of Dan Wheldon's. I don't know why, so I'm not even going to offer an explanation. But over the last year or so I have really become a fan, and the main reason is because he honestly gets it. He really has a passion for the sport, the series, and the Speedway.
My respect for him really grew in the off-season when no matter what was thrown his way, he just didn't jump into any car or any situation. He could have taken a ride with any team, drove around in circles for the season and made a lot of money, but that obviously isn't who he is. He was waiting for the perfect ride, and somehow that perfect ride was a one-off for the 500, and next year might even become more than that. Being there in person to see him win the 500 was a special experience, just like it is when any driver who has a true reverence for the race finds Victory Lane. Actually, that was also why I was pretty moved by Paul Menard's victory in the Brickyard 400 today, because of the passion and commitment that his family has shown towards the Speedway for as long as I have been a fan.
It was while listening to the broadcast of the Cup race on the radio that I got the idea for this post. I was flipping channels and came to a station where I heard Wheldon's voice. I caught the end of the interview but what he said struck me. After he talked about how special it was to win the 500 for the second time, and especially on the race's 100th anniversary, they asked him why he was there for a stock car race, and he replied something like "any time the Speedway asks me to come here, I am usually on a plane within the hour". Later on in the TV broadcast we find out he was the driver coach for Hope Solo as she prepared to drive the pace car for the Brickyard. Of course, you probably couldn't ask for a better person to show you the fast way around, but I think for him to do that shows his desire to pay it forward for what the Speedway has done for him.
That's just awesome. I think we all have this jaded impression that today's professional athlete cares little about anything but showing up and making as much money as they can. And, yes, for a lot of them that is true. It's refreshing to see someone who understands what made him rich and famous, and that they are appreciative of the history of the people who came here before them.
I don't think Wheldon has always gotten a fair shake over the past few years, and I wouldn't blame him if he were pissed or bitter. Flat-out, the guy can drive and deserves a full-time ride with one of the series' best teams. Instead, he has made the best of the situation by being an ambassador to the sport and doing what he can to help it grow. And the one time he got in a car this year, he won!
So this is just a shout-out in appreciation of what this sport has in people like Dan. People like him are why I love sports.