Friday, June 22, 2018
Sports

IndyCar drivers, fans share perfect day at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with Dan Wheldon

ST. PETERSBURG

Spider-Man was climbing again, up toward the heavens, filled with victory and memories and the sweetness of a spur-of-the-moment celebration.

Ah, Dan. You should have seen it.

Helio Castroneves had a handful of chicken wire, and his feet were on the restraining wall, and only the racing helmet on his head hid his tears. On a postcard-perfect afternoon in your hometown, in the moments after a victory in your sport, your old buddy might as well have been on top of the world.

Then, in a perfect moment that will forever be the way this Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is remembered, he started to pound his right hand against a brand new street sign. It read Dan Wheldon Way.

Ah, Dan, you should have been here.

It was Helio's day, and it was Dan's. It was St. Pete's day, and it was IndyCar's day. It was their day, and it was ours.

All of them won Sunday, the drivers and the departed racer. Over the past few months, since Wheldon died in a car race in Las Vegas, there have been a lot of touching moments and a lot of heartfelt memories offered. Before Sunday, however, it always seemed too soon to smile.

This was the first IndyCar race since that day, however, the first time Wheldon's peers returned to competition in the sport he loved deeply. The words are still solemn when other drivers talk about Wheldon, but the subject seems to have changed from the way he died to the way he lived. Closure isn't the right way to describe it, because no one wants to forget Wheldon. Perspective? Acceptance? Maybe those are better words.

Helio up a wall to share this with his old friend? That's a better image, too.

Castroneves didn't plan to visit the street sign, he said. In his two previous victories here, he had celebrated on Turn 1, and he wanted to do something different. So he parked in the corner of Turn 10, and he climbed the fence toward the fans. Then he glanced, and on the other side of the street he saw the Wheldon sign. And then he was climbing again.

"It seemed to be the perfect fit for this race," said Castroneves, who admitted he cried at the top of the climb and prayed when he was back on the ground. "You can never question God's mystery.

"I'm an emotional person. I felt very touched seeing his name there. It still hurts, but we have to keep moving on. That's life."

Wheldon would have loved this day. The Brit's adopted hometown had one of those chamber-of-commerce days. Between the bay and the sky, no one would have questioned why he had embraced St. Petersburg as his new hometown. His sport was back in business. And his buddies were on the victory stand. Helio. Scott Dixon. Ryan Hunter-Reay. Of course, if Wheldon had been up there, too, he really would have loved this day.

His presence was everywhere, on ribbons, on stickers. You could feel him as clearly as you could hear engines roar. Castroneves even suggested that if Wheldon had been in the sport's new car, the DW12, at Las Vegas, "he would be with us today."

Mostly, he was with the drivers.

"The wounds are still fresh," said Hunter-Reay. "This is Dan's hometown. His adopted hometown. His U.S. hometown. He's a great champion of his sport. I know every driver on this circuit wants to be like him in many ways. He was with us today in every way. I wish we could have him back. He was great for our sport. But that's just life. Not fair."

You wonder. What would Wheldon have said to Dixon? A former teammate, Dixon and his family were close with Wheldon's. The couples were married a month apart, and both had young children. When Wheldon died, it was Dixon who moved with his wife, Emma, and two children to St. Petersburg for two months to help out however he could.

"It's almost fitting the first race (of the season) was in St. Pete," Dixon said. "If you could turn back time and change things, you certainly would. For me, I just miss the guy. It s---- not being able to turn around and see him coming through a door with those bright white teeth sort of smiling at you. It just s----. It just plain s----."

For the men who face the same dangers, the kinship with Wheldon is obvious. Remember, these are men who barnstorm together from town to town. It is a competitive life, but everyone faces the same risk. That's why the memories of Wheldon will continue.

Said Hunter-Reay: "He's the defending Indy 500 champ. I don't think it's going to go away. He's going to be on every ticket at Indy this year, and rightfully so. We don't want to forget about him."

How can they? He was one of them. One of us, too.

Ah, Dan. You should have been here with everyone.

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