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Racing community pays tribute to Wheldon in Indy

Dan Wheldon's friends shed a few tears and shared lots of laughs Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dan Wheldon's friends shed a few tears and shared lots of laughs Sunday.

Some couldn't even bear to say goodbye a week after the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in a fiery crash at Las Vegas.

The 87-minute memorial service was a fitting tribute to Wheldon's life, with former teammates and bosses providing dozens of stories about the roles Wheldon played — fierce competitor on the track, comedian off of it and loving father and husband.

"At first Dan was pretty much the little brother we didn't want," four-time IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti said drawing laughter before pausing to collect his thoughts. "And now we'd do anything to have him back. We'll miss you D.W."

With an estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 filling Conseco Fieldhouse, it was a shared sentiment on yet another dark day in the racing world.

Hundreds of fans signed two large banners that will be given to Wheldon's wife, Susie, who attended the ceremony but did not speak.

A few fans wore Wheldon No. 4 shirts from his days with Panther Racing, and others delivered flowers, contributed to the family trust fund or dropped off personal mementoes.

"Thank you for the many wonderful memories," Rebecca Nix wrote on a folded flag with a photo of Wheldon pinned to it.

The day was full of emotion — from the moment of silence organizers observed in honor of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who was killed Sunday in a crash at Malaysia, right down to Garth Brooks' final song, "The Dance."

But after touching eulogies from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus, most speakers interspersed light-hearted moments from Wheldon's life with somber farewells because they said that's how Wheldon would have wanted it.

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and one of Wheldon's closest friends, recounted the pranks he, Franchitti and Bryan Herta pulled on Wheldon when the four were teammates with Michael Andretti's team. He remembered stealing the left shoe from each of Wheldon's pairs in Japan and shipping them back to the U.S., the time they threw everything out of the self-proclaimed neat-freak's tidy locker and then had to help him clean it up and the countless times they joked about Wheldon's "tight" racing suit.

From his supply of hair products to his boy-band looks, the teammates teased Wheldon mercilessly.

And everybody had some sort of funny story.

Panther Racing's Mike Kitchel recalled the "phone-stealing" game often played with the public relations staff. Wheldon would take the staff's cell phones and send messages to someone from the contact list, setting up meetings, lunches or worse.

Business manager Mickey Ryan called Wheldon the Imelda Marcos of race-car drivers.

But in the end, everyone was emotional.

"Our time together is not over. We have our friends, we have our memories, and one day we'll be together again," Kanaan said. "It is for this reason that I'm not saying goodbye because goodbye is final. So today, I say see you later."

Some of the sport's biggest names attended the service.

In addition to Franchitti, Kanaan and Herta were current drivers Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal; former IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. and three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford. Team owners John Barnes, Sarah Fisher and Roger Penske and speedway chairwoman Mari Hulman George also were in the crowd.

So were a handful of National Guard members, the people Wheldon represented while driving for Barnes' Panther Racing team.

None of them spoke during a service that included a photo collage of Wheldon's greatest moments in racing — from his racing days as a child to the moment he kissed Indy's famed yard of bricks as his 2-year-old Sebastian sat next to him.

Wheldon's father and Wheldon's siblings also sent a videotaped message thanking fans for their support. Country music star Reba McEntire and The Band Perry also performed during the service.

The stage was decorated with a Borg-Warner Trophy and a winner's wreath from the 500, two bottles of milk, symbolic of his two Indy wins, and Wheldon's 2005 points championship trophy.

Mike Hull, managing director for Target Chip Ganassi, brought his own prop — a pair of sunglasses to mimic Wheldon's trademark look around the track. Everybody laughed.

"This guy was in the middle of everything we were doing at Chip Ganassi Racing," said Hull, Wheldon's boss when he left Andretti's team. "I had never, up to that point, been around someone like Dan Wheldon."

On the track, Wheldon was a hard-nosed racer with a penchant for finding his way to the front.

Wheldon began driving go-karts as a 4-year-old, and racing stayed with him as he attended school in England as a child, winning eight British national titles along the way. He moved to the United States in 1999, quickly trying to find sponsor money to fund his dream, and by 2002 — after stints in some lower-profile open-wheel series, such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights — he was on the IndyCar grid for the first time.

By 2005, he was not only the funniest driver on the circuit but the most dominant. He won his first Indy that year, giving Michael Andretti his first victory lap around the famed Brickyard, and later went on to win the points championship.

But over the years, Wheldon grew up in front of everyone.

After winning his first Indy, his business managers said, Wheldon partied until 4 a.m. After becoming the 18th two-time winner in May, he reserved the celebration for his wife and two young sons.

And that's how most in the racing community will remember Wheldon.

"Dan's legacy on and off the track lives on in each one of us and we should remember that," Herta said. "God bless you Danny and thank you. We all appreciate it.