Neighbors of Wheldon pay tearful tribute
In Emberton, England, struggling to hold back tears, Clive Wheldon’s voice quivered as he spoke about the tragic death of his son in a fiery IndyCar crash.
“Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do,” he told reporters Monday outside the family home in the sleepy English village of Emberton, a far cry from the high-powered world of auto racing in which his son became one of Britain’s most famous sporting exports.
News of Dan Wheldon’s death, at the age of 33, following a massive crash in the Las Vegas Indy 300 dominated newspaper headlines and newscasts in Britain on Monday.
Wheldon’s loss was most keenly felt Monday among the motor-sport fraternity, which has long recognized his talent starting from his youth as a kart driver, and in Emberton, a village in Buckinghamshire—a county just north of London—where he grew up and where his parents Clive and Sue still live.
“The family would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy,” said Clive, reading slowly from a prepared statement and flanked by sons Austin and Ashley. “He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track.”
A floral tribute was placed in the heart of the village.
“R.I.P. Dan. You’ll be missed champ,” read one of the messages.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathleen Summers initially just wanted to pay her respects to Dan Wheldon, brushing past a reporter and trying to avoid the TV news truck across the street from the waterfront home of the late Izod IndyCar Series driver. After slipping a hand-painted paper with her motto "thanks for playing" between bouquets of mums, the self-described middle-aged neighbor knelt and prayed for a moment before agreeing to talk about what the late Indianapolis 500 and series champion meant to her.
"I had to come. It's very personal," said Sullivan, tears streaming down her face. "It was like he was one of our own. I went to all the grand prixes, I like to race just like him and I know what it's like to go real fast. But I always said that when I went so fast that I started to see God. That's when you brake.
"Only Dan could go that fast and not have to brake. God bless, you Dan Wheldon."
His passing was deeply felt on the west side of Tampa Bay, his home away from his native England since winning that temporary street course race.
In restaurants and grocery stores, mournful residents spoke in hushed tones Monday about Wheldon. Respectful sentiments also were expressed worldwide on Twitter and Facebook.
The most tangible expressions could be found in the budding shrine lining the front walk of the British driver's two-story, off-white and beige house. Nearly three dozen bouquets, varying from a single carnation to potted mums, dotted the steps and path leading to the door.
Attached to one arrangement of red and yellow mums was a sealed, autographed, 8x10 of the smiling driver. Others left stuffed animals. Then there was a sprinkling of cards and handwritten notes, including an anonymous one that read:
Forever alive in our hearts,
He brought our family enjoyment.
Thank you, Lord, for Dan Wheldon.
Most occupants from the intermittent stream of cars here stopped long enough to get out and leave their remembrances, with engines running and lights flashing. The police presence probably had something to do with the short stays, but officers seemed willing to give visitors time to express their grief.
"We just wanted to say thanks," said one mother, who declined to be identified as she and her son left flowers. "He was a great driver, and he seemed like such a nice person."
"With him being local, part of the (then-)Andretti (Green Racing) team that finished 1-2-3-4 in the first race, it started part of a special history," said Tim Ramsberger, Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg vice president and general manager. "We missed him this year, but were really looking forward to him being with Andretti for 2012," as was hoped.
"Dan touched everybody and had friends everywhere he went. It's such a tragedy because he was such a public face."
"I'd like to think at some point we'd celebrate his life and recognize that he lived here," Ramsberger said. "When it's appropriate, we will celebrate Dan Wheldon — and I really look forward to that moment."
For now, recognition of Wheldon builds with every fan stopping by his driveway. USAToday.com