When I was a kid, the Indianapolis 500 was still the biggest auto racing event in the U.S. I remember spending my Memorial Day watching at least some of the race until Mom turned off the TV and kicked me outside.
So it was a great thrill for me to finally go to a 500 in 2005. Although NASCAR is much more popular than IndyCar racing as a whole, you'd never believe it if you were in Speedway, Indiana on the final Sunday in May. Imagine everybody in Eugene-Springfield crowded within a four-mile radius. Then add 50,000 more people to that crowd. That's how many people are inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. (There are about 215,000 people in Eugene-Springfield. At minimum, 250,000 people go to the race.)
I felt like a kid again, going to a place I'd seen a billion times on TV. Everything about the experience was tremendous. It was Danica Patrick's first Indianapolis 500 (if you happen to remember the hubub surrounding that) and let's just say that not everybody was rooting for her.
Dan Wheldon won that race in the final laps, and so every time Wheldon won a race or got mentioned or anything, I told whoever I was with that "I saw Dan Wheldon win his first Indianapolis 500." I had a thought that day that's stuck with me throughout the years- I saw decades into the future, when Wheldon would retire and be inducted into the racing hall of fame, (because he would have been one of the all-time greats) and I would be older-brotherly proud of him, having witnessed him win the greatest race he could ever win for the first time.
That all changed in a flash Sunday afternoon in the newsroom, when, as I was working on "Sports Overtime," Joe Leadingham said, "Dan Wheldon, that's awful," and I said, "What about Dan?" and Megan Higgens, from her desk, said, "He died," and I looked at Joe's computer screen and there was that picture of the flaming wreckage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on ESPN.com with the headline "Wheldon dies in Las Vegas."
If I felt ten years old again that final Sunday in May 2005, this past Sunday I felt older than I ever have before. The idea of a sports hero is a silly idea... except for what those people represent. Dan Wheldon, to me, represented getting to do something my ten year old self wished he could have done- and that's watch the Indy 500 in person.
So his death means every time I hear his name I will still think of that Sunday in May in 2005- and the happy weekend that surrounded it- but now it will also remind me how a ten year old's dream- and the career of the best driver in the sport today- went up in flames and died.