NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 74- Dan Wheldon Memorial Service

by Phil Allaway

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where I take an additional look at motorsports-related programming. Now that we’re getting towards the end of October, there really isn’t all that much out there to critique in addition to NASCAR races. Most American-based series are already done for the year. Grand-Am’s been finished for over a month. ALMS finished at the Petit Le Mans three weeks ago. The Izod IndyCar Series finished up on the 16th. The only series left to finish up are NASCAR’s top-3, along with the K&N Pro Series West, Formula One and DirtCar’s top series (World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, Late Models and the Super DirtCar Series for Big Block Modifieds).

I’ll more than likely provide critiques of all of these series before the season is out. However, this week, I’m not covering a race in this space. As we all know, the Izod IndyCar Series’ season finale was marred by the horrific 15-car crash that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon. On Sunday afternoon, the Izod IndyCar Series held a public memorial service in Wheldon’s memory at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Downtown Indianapolis. It was televised live on multiple different outlets. For most of us, it was available on Versus. However, it was also simulcast on ESPNEWS, ESPN3.com and WatchESPN.com on a national basis. Viewers in the Indianapolis TV market could also watch the ceremony live on CW affiliate WTTV 4 (or sister station WTTK 29 out of Kokomo), ABC affiliate WRTV 6, or NBC affiliate WTHR 13. As of this writing, the whole memorial service has been posted to YouTube by the Izod IndyCar Series. For the sake of this critique, I will be basing my thoughts on Versus’ presentation.

Versus’ telecast started out with a brief introduction of the telecast from pit reporter Kevin Lee, who was stationed outside of the main entrance to the Conseco Fieldhouse. He described the event as not necessarily a way to mourn Wheldon, but as a way to celebrate his life.

ESPN’s Marty Reid and Versus’ Bob Jenkins hosted the ceremony together. The stage consisted of a simple setup with a podium and a new 2012 Dallara with the superspeedway aero kit painted up with the colors of England’s flag in Wheldon’s memory. On the other side of the stage was the Borg-Warner Trophy, given to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 (Wheldon is the defending champion of the race), Wheldon’s 2005 IndyCar Series Champion’s Trophy, a wreath and two bottles of milk. Above the stage was a giant screen that displayed various clips from Wheldon’s career and pictures.

After a brief prayer, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard took to the podium, thanked everyone for coming out to the show and began to share memories of Wheldon as a racer and a gregarious human being.

A number of musical acts punctuated the ceremony. Reba McEntire sang her 1994 hit song, “If I Had Only Known, ” a somewhat lesser-known song of hers that was written for the 1994 film 8 Seconds. Siblings/Country music group The Band Perry sang an acoustic version of “Amazing Grace.” During the rendition, pictures of Wheldon from various points in his life were shown. Finally, the rarely-seen (at least these days) Garth Brooks performed to close out the program.

Following a brief montage of Wheldon clips that were displayed on the big screen, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Jeff Belksus talked about Wheldon’s accomplishments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wheldon’s managers Adrian Sussman and Mickey Ryan talked about the time that they spent with Dan. Ryan recounted how Wheldon celebrated his first Indianapolis 500 win by staying up basically all night drinking and carousing, ending up at a Steak and Shake (which I do not have in Upstate New York, but many of my readers are privy to) and eating a greasy cheeseburger half-asleep and partially drunk at 4:30am despite having to be at the track at 6am to do a Good Morning America interview. The description made it sound like quite the time was had by all. Also revealed was the fact that Wheldon fell asleep after calling in to do a radio interview later that morning.

Sussman and Ryan did describe Wheldon as a “neat freak” who owned roughly 200 pairs of shoes and his closet as being home to an army of perfectly orderly shoes.

From here, the stories devolved into classic retellings of pranks that Wheldon either played on people, or times in which friends of his thought they were being joked with because of Wheldon’s track record, but really weren’t. Wheldon’s PR representatives from Panther Racing recounted stories of how Dan would steal their cell phones and text strange things to people on their contact lists. For example, he used a woman’s phone to text a man named Charles Burns with the quote “Sometimes late at night, I lay awake and think about your large hands.” You definitely needed to lock your phone and put a good password on it around Wheldon, or else silly things would go down.

Mike Nunn described when Wheldon drove for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2006 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Apparently, Wheldon’s first stint in the car featured the use of GT cars as apexes, and “jake braking” the transmission. I have no clue how one would jake brake a Daytona Prototype, but I imagine that it would be loud, grinding, and just plain awful. Naturally, Wheldon was read the riot act by almost every member of the crew afterwards. Eventually, with some guidance from Nunn, Wheldon improved behind the wheel and the No. 02 that Wheldon was driving, along with Scott Dixon and Casey Mears ended up winning. Nunn claimed that Wheldon loved to engage people in any way possible.

Finally, Wheldon’s former teammates from his days at Andretti-Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport), Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta took the podium. They talked about their times with Wheldon and shared a couple of interesting stories.

After they left the stage, the special ended with a clip of the five-lap salute from Las Vegas. A recorded statement from Wheldon’s family was played on the big screen thanking everyone for turning out for the service and remembering Wheldon like he wanted to be remembered. A thank you message (in text) from Wheldon’s widow, Susie, was also shown on the big screen.

This service was frontloaded with sadness. The first 20 minutes or so were quite difficult to get through. Having McEntire sing “If I Had Only Known” only reinforced this (Note: I had never heard this song before watching this special, despite the fact that it is 17 years old). During this time, there were cutaway camera shots to people in the crowd with tissues to wipe away tears and people with their hands in their hands.

However, once you got past that first bit, it was actually fun to watch. From what the many speakers that took the podium said, Wheldon appeared to be the kind of person that just loved living life. He would be an excellent person to spend time around. However, having said that, you might have to watch out. Some stuff could have gone down if you weren’t paying attention. All of it was in good fun, but it could lead to some rather interesting situations.

Wheldon appeared to be a very easy person to work with, and definitely amongst the more willing when it comes to spending time with fans (hate to break it to you, but there are quite a few drivers that are not the biggest fans of doing autograph sessions or meeting fans). Maybe not quite to the level of say…Taylor Swift, but still a very approachable chap (Swift is apparently known for doing marathon autograph sessions that go on for upwards of ten hours).

As for Jenkins and Reid, they simply took a backseat to the proceedings. They introduced and closed out the show, and introduced various speakers. That’s about it. They didn’t really share much of anything. Depending on who you ask, it might have been better that way. I just thought that they didn’t want to make the show about themselves instead of Wheldon. That’s perfectly fine.

I’m not sure what the turnout for the memorial was, but it appeared that there were a number of dignified guests on the arena floor and a fair number of fans in the regular seats. Not a horrible turnout by anyone’s standards.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the Dan Wheldon Memorial Service. Next week, I’ll be back with expanded coverage beyond whatever SPEED provides of the SEF Small Engine Fuels 200 from the New York State Fairgrounds. Until then, enjoy this weekend’s action in Martinsville and Delhi, India.

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