News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 24, 2011

Memorial service for Wheldon attracts thousands

Lori Wood
Tribune-Star Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS — Thousands came to honor deceased IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon during a memorial service at Conseco Fieldhouse on Sunday.

Wheldon was killed Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a 15-car accident. Fans, friends and hundreds associated with the IndyCar Series began filing into Conseco as soon as the doors opened at 1:30 p.m.

They began signing their thoughts on two enormous banners that will be given to Wheldon’s family. IndyCar driver Sebastian Saavedra wrote “Mate, you might be gone, but we will always feel you very close. I miss you, but will never forget you.”

On the elaborate stage, Wheldon’s two milk bottles sat beside his winner’s wreath. Also on stage were the Borg-Warner Trophy, his Indy Racing League Championship trophy, and the car Wheldon had been testing for next year. A montage of photos and quotes played on the giant video screen prior to the opening of the service.

A lone Gordon Piper opened the service with a bagpipe rendition of “O Danny Boy.” IndyCar Ministries pastor Bob Hills quoted from the Apostle Paul “My time of departure is near. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race I have kept the faith.”

Following a prayer, IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard spoke first.

“He was a great champion and friend to so many of us. Today we mourn Dan’s loss, but also celebrate his life,” Bernard said. “This turnout is a wonderful tribute to Dan, a reminder to all of us how a single life, well-lived, can make a difference to so many other people. Certainly that was true of Dan.”

Country music superstar Reba McIntire came to the stage to sing “If I had Only Known” while the screen continued to show Wheldon’s career and life in pictures. The Band Perry performed Chris Tomlin’s rendition of Amazing Grace/My Chains are gone.”

During the nearly 90-minute ceremony, speakers reflected on their relationship with Wheldon. However, it was not with incredible sadness, but with the joy of sharing Wheldon’s constant pranks and wild sense of humor. Wheldon’s management representatives Adrian Sussman and Mickey Ryan spoke of his antics, bringing laughter to an audience who dearly needed a chuckle.

The two told of the contrast in Wheldon’s two Indy 500 wins. In 2005, after the milk, the Jim Beam flowed freely, Indianapolis was a playground and the night did not end until 4 a.m., just two hours before a national televised morning show interview, which he did, but later in the day fell asleep seconds before going on live radio. However, this year’s race he dedicated to family especially his mother in England who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Mike Kitchel, public relations director for Panther Racing also told of Wheldon’s love of pranks especially with cell phones. Wheldon was famous for stealing cell phones and sending interesting texts to everyone in the contact list. Wheldon once sent a very provocative message to what he thought was Kitchel’s wife, but inadvertently send it to Kitchel’s brother –in-law.

When drivers Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta made their way to the stage Kanaan declared “It is now a ‘no cry’ zone.” The next several minutes were filled with roars of laughter as the trio told of their days together at Andretti Green. Wheldon famous for his style and freakish clean nature was pure fodder for the older and notorious Franchitti, Kanaan and Herta.

As they finished, Kanaan turned serious.

“I’m grateful for the time we got to spend with him on Earth. Although that time here is done, our time together is not over. We have our memories. We have our feelings. And one day we will be together again,” Kanaan said. “For that reason, I’m not saying goodbye to Dan. Not today. And not ever. Goodbye is final, and our friendship won’t end. So for now, I’m simply saying I’ll see you later. I love you.”