INDIANAPOLIS - The tragic death of Dan Wheldon in the final race of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series will be on the minds of most of the 200,000 or so race fans who will pack Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon.
The reminders are everywhere, from a giant poster of Wheldon that adorns the entrance way to the speedway to his image on the tickets required to enter the 2.5-mile racing shrine.
And on Thursday, in the presence of all 33 drivers who will start the 96th Indianapolis 500 Susie Wheldon, Dan’s widow, was given the championship ring he earned one year ago.
In a short speech, Wheldon thanked her racing family.
“I just want to thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support for me and my family,” she said. “It has been so comforting to have the support of so many in such a difficult time.
“I am honoured to be here to accept this champion of champions ring on behalf my husband.
“Dan loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it meant to win here. I am proud to be here to represent him as a two-time winner. I am proud to be here with my children, Sebastien and Oliver, to celebrate their father’s life and legacy.”
For one driver in particular, it was a very personal and poignant moment.
Alex Tagliani was more than just a teammate with Wheldon at last year’s Indy 500, he was his friend, or as he likes to say: “He was my brother from a different mother.”
They came to Indianapolis together as a small underfunded team and left with glory.
“When Dan signed with the team we were partners at Indy,” Tagliani said. “We showed up at the speedway and I got on the pole and Dan got the win.
“We basically won everything there was to win at the Speedway last year.
“And that to me will be very special to me for the rest of my life. I have some great memories of going to congratulate Dan at his car after the race.
“And I have the same memory of him coming to congratulate me after winning the pole.”
The connection between the Canadian Tagliani and the Briton Wheldon continues with Tagliani now driving with the Bryan Herta Autosports Honda team with the same No. 98 on its nose that Wheldon drove to victory in the 95th Indy 500.
Tagliani, of course, was also Wheldon’s teammate in the Sam Schmidt/Bryan Herta team on that fateful day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October when just 11 laps into the season finale tragedy struck.
Wheldon did on survive the horrific crash leaving behind his grieving widow and two small children.
Tagliani still has a hard time coming to grips with what happened.
“Everything just happened so fast, the way the accident happened” he said.
Tagliani said that he thinks about what Susie is going through almost every day.
“I can’t tell you how difficult this must be for Susie,” he said. “She has a lot of strength,”
He said that it mist have been especially hard for her to be at Indianapolis, back to the life that Dan loved so much.
“She must be in such a tough situation to be around racing when this was the life and the world that Dan was from,” Tagliani said. “But it is a life that they went through together as a couple.”
He said he and his wife Bronte do talk about the dangers of the sport but concentrate on the good things it has brought into their lives.
Tagliani said all racing families share the highs and the lows that come with the career.
“As a race car driver you can’t take all the credit for any success you have. You accomplish things and those accomplishments belong to your family.”
Tagliani pointed out that without the support and dedication of Bronte for him and Susie for Wheldon, success like winning the Indy 500 can’t be truly appreciated.
“For Susie to be here, as difficult as it is, she deserves to share in Dan’s success,” he said.
“It was definitely a touching moment. It is nice to see that she has been able to make peace with the situation.
“I wish her all the strength in the world to be able to continue get on with here life with her kids.
“That is what Dan would have wanted.”
Tagliani said that it is his hope that he and the No. 98 team can do something special on Sunday to celebrate what Wheldon was able to accomplish.
“Hopefully here at the Speedway, in this atmosphere that we are in with Dan’s memory and everything that has been happening this past year, that we have some good positive vibes around our car,” he said. “Our hope is that we can re-create what Dan did last year. And if we can, that would be absolutely amazing.”