ST. PETERSBURG — Some days are better than others for Susie Wheldon, and there's rarely any warning what will trigger the emotional roller coaster she has been on since husband Dan Wheldon's fatal crash in last year's IndyCar finale.
A familiar coffee shop brings a flood of memories; a song can make her sad. Most recently, it was a trip to the emergency room for a stomach bug 1-year-old son Oliver couldn't shake. In an instant, she was reliving the frantic efforts to save the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and St. Petersburg resident after the Oct. 16 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"Almost immediately when I walked in, they brought me back to a room just to wait for a doctor, and I just sat there, and I instantly felt panic," she said. "I hadn't been in a hospital since, and I just saw all these machines. Something like that, that I didn't even think would be a big deal — it was just a really horrible thing.
"Took me back there again, just the panic of everything of that day."
Seven months after the accident, Wheldon heads to the Indianapolis 500 for ceremonies honoring last year's winner. She expected to arrive today and spend the weekend, accompanied by her and Dan's two sons. But she wasn't sure if she would attend Sunday's race. Wheldon said she's not sure how she'll handle the tumult of returning to the track her husband loved so much.
She couldn't do it in March, when she left town rather than face the pain of IndyCar's opener in St. Petersburg, where she still resides in the family home with Oliver and Sebastian, 3.
"I'm ready. I think I'm ready, or I have to be ready, because it's something that I want to do and I want to be able to be a part of that for Dan as far as having the boys there," she said. "His family is the most important part of his legacy, so we want to be there to honor him in that way as far as him being last year's winner and everything about that race that he loved so much."
Dan Wheldon, who also won the 500 in 2005, will be remembered on the race day ticket, which features him pouring the traditional winner's bottle of milk over his head in Victory Lane. His winning car will be driven by owner Bryan Herta in a lap of honor Sunday. Fans entering the track Sunday will be given a pair of white sunglasses, Dan's preference, to wear during tributes on the parade lap, Laps 26 and 98, which recognize the numbers of his winning cars.
Susie Wheldon is scheduled to participate in Saturday's public drivers meeting and will accept the Champion of Champions ring on behalf of Wheldon's 2011 victory in a ceremony this afternoon.
Emma Dixon, wife of driver Scott Dixon and a friend of Susie's, hopes Wheldon can manage the many emotions this weekend will bring.
"I am a bit nervous for her, worried it is really going to tear her heart out because it's such a special place for Dan," Emma Dixon said. "It held a lot of big memories, and I think it is going to be incredibly hard. But the one thing is, she wants to do what Dan wants her to do, and he'd want her to be holding her head up high and remembering the good times."
Wheldon does not discuss the events of that day in Las Vegas. And if she second-guesses Dan's participation, she doesn't let on.
"No, not mad that he did that race. No," she said quietly.
The race changed her life. She's now a 33-year-old widow, with two toddlers. His family is in England, her parents in North Carolina, and she's essentially alone trying to move forward.
Wheldon has been angry about different things during her stages of grief, but not at Dan, at least not yet.
"Maybe that will come later. I don't know," she said. "I get angry sometimes at that, that I wish we could have grown old together.
"I am thankful just for everything that we do have. Did have. Two beautiful children. We had an amazing life together, and I know most people don't experience that in a lifetime. That's something that I hold on to."