Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dan Wheldon's Legacy As A Driver

It's hard to believe it's already been a year since Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 IndyCar season finale.

I don't think anyone who was in attendance or watching TV will forget what happened that day, as much as we would like to sometimes. I've been a racing fan for over 30 years, and have been exposed several times to a driver suffering fatal injuries in a crash. I was in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Gordon Smiley lost his life in 1982, and I saw both Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt's crashes on television.

I realized long ago that the possibility of drivers being mortally injured in a crash is the cruel drawback to what is otherwise an incredible sport. Thankfully safety advances have made it an uncommon occurrence. But even thought I had been through this several times before, I couldn't believe the impact Dan's death had on me that day.

His was different in so many ways. He was the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, his racing career, after being sort of cloudy for a while, seemed to be on an upswing as he had signed on to run the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport, and it was especially tough to know that he left behind a wife and two very young sons.

Plus, I was dealing with a personal situation in that my older sister Joni was in the final stages of a cancer battle, which took her life on December 22nd.

A year later, with the opportunity to take some time and heal, we can reflect on the entire experience with clear eyes and full hearts (to use a line from Friday Night Lights). I'd been thinking of a couple of different ideas for this post for the last couple of weeks and have been trying to decide which direction I wanted to go.

Regrettably unlike a lot of my fellow bloggers I never met Dan personally, although like many because his personality was so huge and so gregarious I did feel like I knew him. I wish I had some sort of story to share, but my only "personal" connection to Dan was seeing him from afar at the Pagoda after he won the 500 last year. That is an experience I will remember forever because even from a distance you could see the pure, unadulterated joy that he possessed that day. Very few people get that opportunity to experience joy at that level.

It was also special because it was the first time my son Matt had attended a race, and to have experienced such an amazing moment in sports such as the Centennial and the finish of an incredible race with him is something I will cherish. As my kids have grown up I have hoped to pass along my love of the sport to them, and I think Dan helped me pass that love along to him that day.

When someone passes, especially if that person is well-known or accomplished, we talk about their "legacy". Dan certainly left one, and it is very multi-faceted.

But as we mark his death, the legacy I want to focus on is the one he left as a driver. Simply put, Dan Wheldon was one of the best open wheel drivers of this generation, and when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was one of the best of all time.

Let's start with his IndyCar career. In 128 races he posted 16 wins, 43 podiums and five pole positions, winning the championship in 2005 and tying Sam Hornish Jr. for the title the next year, although Hornish had more wins that season and was awarded the title on the tiebreaker.

Here is when it gets amazing. In the five seasons between 2004-08 he ran 82 races, winning 15 of them (including a career-high six in 2005) and finishing on the podium another 22 times. In that span he placed second, first, second, fourth and fourth in the points standings.

By comparison, Dario Franchitti has run 83 races over the last five seasons he has competed in IndyCar, winning 17 times and posting a total of 42 podiums.That's some pretty good company.

Speaking of good company, Wheldon is one of just eight men who have won the Indy 500 twice, and one of just 18 to have won multiple times. Among that group of two-time winners only Bill Vukovich (5) and Tommy Milton (8) ran the race fewer times than Dan's nine, but he ranks fourth in laps led per start (26) and is tied with Rodger Ward with five top-three finishes.

(Editor's note: The IMS website lists Mauri Rose as having won twice, but since his face is on the Borg-Warner Trophy three times, in my mind he is a three-time winner.)

He also started on the front row three times and the second row another three times. Although starting further back in the field wasn't a problem because he won from the 16th starting spot in 2005 and finished second in 2009-10 while going off 18th both of those years.

Because he accomplished so much in such a short period of time at Indy, among the two-time winners I would have to rank him third behind Vukovich and Emerson Fittipaldi, who led 505 laps over 11 starts and with a bit of luck could have won the race at least two more times.

It was unfortunate that Wheldon was left off the Greatest 33 list last year, but probably shot his way up the field with his second win as it gave people the chance to reassess his career.

I'm happy to say I saw both of those wins, and I think they were equally impressive. Of course he won for the first time during his championship season, so arguably he had the best car, but he didn't go to the front in that race until Lap 150, and didn't take the lead for good until passing Danica Patrick with seven laps to go.

Last year was the same way, a patient, steady drive. He was in the top 10 all day and did pass a lot of cars, but with 10 laps to go was in seventh place and as we all know only led about 500 feet of the 500 miles.

Still, you don't luck your way into five top threes and six top-five finishes at Indianapolis. The race is too long and there are too many variables. Once, sure, the race is full of one-hit wonders. But six times? Of the multiple winners, only Al Unser Sr. (13), AJ Foyt (10), Rick Mears (9), Johncock (8), Wilbur Shaw (7), Al Unser Jr. (7) had more, and Shaw was the only one who had fewer than 15 starts. Four of the drivers on that list had a minimum of 19 appearances.

Of course you can argue that Wheldon drove in a different era, one where the cars are more reliable and top finishes are "easier" to come by. I'll give you that, but he has the same number of top-fives as Helio Castroneves and Franchitti combined, and one more than Scott Dixon, who is the most consistent driver of this era.

I know that I posted a lot of stats, but that was the point. One thing I have noticed in the way we have remembered Dan as an IndyCar nation is that most of it has focused on him as a person, and rightfully so. I love reading the personal accounts of the people who worked with him, spent time with him, or just met him once or twice. It gives such depth to why he was so loved, and why his death has had such an effect on all of us.

Still, at the same time, the guy was one heck of a driver. He was fast, consistent, brave and a winner. He drove hard and he never, ever gave up. A guy with a very, very huge heart and hunger to compete. When we look back at his impact on the sport, it's simple: he was one of the great ones. And on this day, let's remember that too, because we were lucky to have seen him drive, if only for a little while.

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