I was on vacation when I read on Twitter that IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon had been killed in a race in Las Vegas a few hours earlier. Covering sports, and action sports specifically, I’ve grown accustomed to finding out about athlete deaths in this manner on an all-too frequent basis. Every time, reading the news affects me differently. It’s strange to read about someone’s death in 140 characters or less. This time, I found myself thinking about Dan’s wife and his family.
In action sports like BASE-jumping, rally car racing or even motocross, the chances of an athlete dying on live television are slim. I’ve been bracing for that to happen since I began covering the X Games almost 10 years ago, but so far, we’ve been lucky. That’s not to say unfortunate, unnecessary deaths don’t occur. But fatalities tend to take place, more often than not, at small, out-of-the-way contests. And some of the more dangerous sports, like big-mountain snowboarding and wingsuit flying, aren’t televised. So the idea that Dan’s family and friends were watching, on live TV, when he died, was hard for me to fathom. It just seemed so sad and unnecessary.
I only met Dan once, while working on a story on racing dads. The story was an investigation into the long-held belief that having children slows drivers down. Dan’s former teammate and good friend, Scott Dixon, was about to have a baby mid-season, and Dan, who had recently married his former assistant, Susie, had a newborn himself. We talked about family and life and death and whether getting married and having kids made him fearful in the car. I had the same conversation with several drivers, but Dan’s is the only one I still remember, almost verbatim. I think it’s because of how honest it felt, and how starry-eyed he got when talking about his wife. It affected me for a long time afterward.
Like a lot of us who work in the sports world, I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of athletes and their romantic relationships. The moment you get sucked into believing an athlete and his or her wife or husband is “the real deal,” you read about how this one cheated on that one and the divorce is weeks away. It’s hard to believe there are truly committed relationships taking place in this world of groupies and endless travel. But talking to Dan, I bought in. I truly believed I’d found one.
He was, as was his reputation, funny and saucy and not afraid to speak his mind. But when he talked about Susie, he lit up in a way that made me melt. If every girl had a guy who talked about her the way he talked about his wife, we’d all be pretty happy, I told him. I said I bet they were the most annoying couple in the pits, so sappy their friends would get sticky if they stood too close to them. When I asked him if he and Susie, like many drivers confessed they’d done, had timed the conception of their son to coincide with the off-season, he said, “We weren’t thinking about timing. I mean, it’s tough on my wife because when I look this good, she wants to jump my bones all the time. It’d be tough for her to time that. But it worked out perfectly for us.” He was funny. I never met Susie, but talking to Dan, they seemed like the type of couple you wanted to invite to all your parties. That day, I was convinced, by Dan Wheldon, that it was possible for a person to be a professional athlete in the highest ranks of his or her sport and have the kind of relationship people write movies (romantic comedies, obviously) about.
Little of our conversation that day made it into my story, which you can read HERE. In fact, all I used was one simple quote from Dan, about the fact that, once in the racecar, he didn’t think about his wife or his family or the fact that he could be killed doing the sport he loved. But, to be clear: that didn’t mean he thought he would die racing cars. He just accepted that it was a possibility and put that possibility out of his mind when he strapped into the car. He talked about his son Sebastian and how he wanted him to race cars, and about the daughter he was sure he’d have one day. (He and Susie had a second son, Oliver, two years later.) It makes me smile thinking about the type of family the Wheldons were, and unbelievably sad thinking about how little time they had to spend together. But I imagine they didn’t waste much of it. Maybe, then, it was apropos I read of his crash in 140 characters. No time to waste.
A few excerpts from our interview …
My wife would get mad at me if she heard this, but nothing else is on your mind other than making the racecar fast … When I did start thinking about that, it would be time to retire. I just don’t. You can’t. Maybe some people do, but for me, racing is always such an important part of my life and it’s something I enjoy so much. I don’t know, I love my wife and son like crazy, but that’s a different part of my life. When I am in the racecar, I’m thinking about racing.
This sounds kind of cheesy, and you have to know me. My wife and I are extremely close and we spend every second together. We like to be together, a lot. I don’t want this to sound bad, but I never thought I would be able to love anybody the way I love her. I was kind of scared of that. And then, the fact that I definitely do, it was a relief. I love her so much. And the enjoyment he (Sebastian) brings you and the love you have for him, it is my favorite thing. Especially when he’s smiling.
Has Scott (Dixon) told you he’s having a girl? He’s having a girl. They don’t know but I know. [Dixon did have a girl, Poppy, in July 2009.] I keep telling him it’s going to be great when we come back from a race and my son is going to be in bed with his daughter, having just driven Scott’s cars around all weekend and sleeping in his bed. I can’t wait for that. I hope he has a daughter. It’s going to be so good. A boy will be no fun. He’ll get a daughter. For all his sins, he’ll get a daughter. I’m going to get one, too, for mine. Or a son. Definitely another one.