For many, myself included, the wounds that appeared to heal have reopened today, displaying a rawness within that still remains. It's been a year since the tragic accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that took our friend Dan Wheldon. And while we will never forget that heartrending day, reliving it in memory is something many have attempted to withstand.
I was part of the 14-car accident in Vegas, and remember it like it was just yesterday. The impact felt by all was crushing, because Dan touched so many hearts. Fans who had never met him somehow felt a personal connection. He had an innate ability to make others feel special, and that was shown by the outpouring of devastation revealed after his accident.
Dan was a great man, a great husband and a wonderful father to his two boys. The loss for those who knew him best is simply unimaginable. I'm not going to pretend I was closest to Dan, but I always considered him a real friend. He helped me transition to racing in America, and when I was hospitalized after a crash at Indianapolis in 2008, he was the first to come visit. That was Dan. Always there to help.
My first memory of him stems back to my Karting days in England. I was aged 11 — an impressionable racer, looking for a role model to replicate. Of course, legendary drivers such as Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna were my idols, but I looked up to some racers a few years ahead of me. Drivers at the top of their game.
A couple of young, spotty British teenagers caught my attention. One kid had a British flag embedded on his helmet, and the other was nicknamed the Lionheart. Those two kids were Jenson Button and Dan Wheldon – fierce rivals, yet good friends.
I guess I always realized both these guys were destined for stardom, and of course my intuition turned out to be correct. I wanted to follow their footsteps, tracing their path to the top.
I didn't get to know Dan well until I moved to America in 2006 to race in the Indy Lights Series. At this point Dan was a star. He was the reigning IndyCar and Indy 500 champion, and had just signed to race with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team. But despite his stature, he hunted me down in my first race weekend in St Petersburg, and offered me his unsolicited advice on how to approach American racing — where to live, teams I should be talking to, and so on. This level of kindness is rare amongst other drivers, and I will never forget that.
It was that same year, at the Indy 500, I watched in awe as Dan almost lapped the entire field. He carved through traffic in a way no other driver could manage. He was in a different league, and, baring a late race puncture, would unquestionably have won the race. There was something magical about Dan Wheldon at the legendary Speedway. Mythical even. His race craft that day epitomized himself as, in my opinion, one of the greatest drivers to have ever raced that historic event.
In late 2007, I joined Ganassi Racing as a development driver. Dan was still on the roster – fresh with a new set of sparkly white teeth, and long David Beckham-esque hair. I often wondered if he attempted to emulate Becks. These thoughts grew, especially when I saw pictures of him posing in his underwear for a photo shoot that appeared in some glossy fashion magazine.
I would partner up as teammates with Dan, Scott Dixon and Salvador Duran for the 24-hours of Daytona in 2008. As time was short, the team asked me if I could fit into one of Dan's old race suits. They said they would re-badge it with my name, but because we were of similar size, it would make life easier. "Sure," I said.
What I had failed to comprehend is just how tight Dan wore his race suits. My voice squeaked as I zipped up the suit, and I walked around the paddock like RoboCop. I often wondered why Dan chose to have his suits made without pockets and a belt, too. It was "to be different," I was told.
And different he was, with his white shoes and glistening white sunglasses, matching those pearly white gnashers. He had a swagger no other could replicate. Was he trying to be like Beckham? Who knows. To everyone else, he was undeniably Wheldon.
He would often talk to me about children. "Got any more kiddies on the way?" he would say. "You know there is such a thing as birth control, bro," he'd continue. He would ask me how life is with multiple rugrats tearing up the house. And those who knew Dan know how intensely he treasured his obsessively neat home. I remember him quizzing me on having additional kids, just days before he went public stating his wife, Susie, was pregnant with their second child. I always hoped I had settled his concerns. "Crayon stains do come out," I said. Family was everything to him. In fact, our very last conversation, the night before the Vegas race, was about our children.
The loss of Dan is still unfathomable. And my thoughts and prayers go out to Susie, the boys and his family. His life was all too short, but boy did he make the most of it. It's hard to relive the horrors of that day one year ago, but at the same time, I don't ever want to forget.
Dan left the world a brighter place, and his memory will always live on. Currently, I'm on a plane, writing this article 30,000 feet above the earth. And up here, the sun does seem a touch brighter than usual. And the clouds just that little bit whiter.
About the author: Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times - placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion — and close friend — Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
Photo Credit: AP/Getty