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Dan Wheldon leaves a legacy beyond racing

ST. PETERSBURG

The headlines are not enough. Not nearly enough.

For what most people will see or hear today is that a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed Sunday afternoon in a crash too terrifying to comprehend.

Maybe they will pause to digest a detail or two. Perhaps even bow their heads in a moment of reflection or prayer. Yet most of them will never understand what was lost in the fire, impact and devastation spread across the asphalt of a Las Vegas racetrack.

They will have never seen the young man and his beautiful bride pushing a stroller along a sidewalk in a neighborhood in Old Northeast as if they had all the time in the world.

• • •

The street is now quiet, and the night is coming fast.

The house overlooking Coffee Pot Bayou is utterly still, except for a photograph straining against a slight breeze. Since word began to spread of Dan Wheldon's death, people began showing up at his home with cut flowers and tortured hearts.

Were they neighbors? Friends? Fans? It doesn't really matter. It's just enough to know that they felt compelled to walk up the steps of his front doorway to leave bouquets and even a photograph of Wheldon propped against a potted plant.

And this is what the headlines will miss.

His name was famous worldwide for his accomplishments in a race car, but the best part of Dan Wheldon was wrapped up inside the walls of this immaculate home.

"He realized he was in a special place in his life," said Tim Ramsberger, general manager of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "Winning the Indianapolis 500 was obviously a big part of that, but it was also because he was so proud and happy to be a husband and a father of two young boys.

"That's what I remember most. On a stage, holding his son in his arms. That's what really defined Dan the last few years."

He was only 33 but already seemed to have sped through several lifetimes. There was the young boy growing up in Emberton, England, racing go-carts with his father and dreaming of a life of checkered flags. There was the brash young racer making his name on the IndyCar circuit and enjoying all the excesses of fame and fortune.

And there was the sweet, happy, young man who fell in love with his publicist and settled in a sleepy neighborhood in an unconventional choice of a town a half-dozen years ago.

He was smaller than you might have imagined. More fastidious than you probably would have guessed. Definitely more approachable than most athletes of his stature.

He was the neighbor you probably never realized you had.

"I ran into him all over town," St. Petersburg City Councilman Bill Dudley said. "He'd be behind me in line at the car wash, or at a restaurant down the street, and he would always be the same. He always smiled at you like you were his best friend.

"He always had his son with him, was always laughing about what 'this little booger' was doing. I ran into him and Sebastian on the street the day before his wife was going into the hospital to have Oliver, and he was just beaming about the baby.

"I'm just so sick thinking about them now."

• • •

They will have countless pictures of their father. They will be given keepsakes and will be told stories of his racing deeds. And, as they grow older, there may be times when those things will have some measure of comfort.

But Sebastian and Oliver will need more.

They will need to understand that the father they cannot remember was more than just a driver who won the IndyCar series championship in 2005 and finished runnerup two other times.

They will need to know that this, among his most sporadic seasons professionally, might have been the most precious year of his life because he stayed home more than ever.

"He was a phenomenal driver but, more importantly, a good person," Ramsberger said. "He absolutely loved his family, and you can't say anything better than that."

Sebastian is 2, and his brother Oliver is a few days shy of 7 months old. They cannot possibly comprehend Sunday's tears and have no conception of a future that has been forever lost.

Their father's name will be in the headlines this morning, and his face will be on television for days to come. His prowess as a driver warranted that kind of attention.

But Dan Wheldon was so much more than that.

Sebastian and Oliver are the living proof.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Dan Wheldon leaves a legacy beyond racing 10/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 1:22pm]

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