Dan in real life: Ken Sothman on meeting the late Dan Wheldon

Human InterestAutomotive EquipmentManufacturing and EngineeringAl Unser Jr.Auto Racing

"You never know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes."

In this particular case however, I felt like I truly knew a man when I rode seven-point-five miles in his car.

While covering an event named the "2011 Mazda Road to Indy", a clinic where fellow drivers of yesteryear such as Al Unser Jr. (two-time Indianapolis 500 champion) gave tutorials to upcoming drivers, I had the pleasure of meeting Wheldon personally for the first time. As one of the hosts of the guest panel, Wheldon passionately spoke to the younger drivers about the importance of safety gear, representing your sponsors to the fullest, and showing your pit crew and mechanics one-hundred percent recognition of their hard work.

In other words, he spoke to the kids about what it takes to be a true professional. Which I had found interesting, since everything I had previously gathered from Wheldon had involved him being someone who might have been extremely cocky and sometimes unwavering during his mid-twenties. However, this older and mature version of Wheldon had been coming off as a very humbled human being. That was mostly for good reason.

Looking around the room, I realized that the thirty-two year-old Wheldon looked more like the the college-aged students rather than the fifty-plus year-old drivers that were joining him on the panel. The idea of that the bright-eyed Wheldon, who had finished second in the Indianapolis 500 my first two years of covering the event in 2009 and 2010 for Panther Racing, was even partaking in the event seemed baffling to me. Wheldon wasn't past his prime, and this surely seemed like an event that the old-timer's are usually leading.

At that current state of his career though, Wheldon was active as those elder drivers that had joined him. Having been dropped from Panther Racing despite successful results on the track, Wheldon entered the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series without a team. I had never been informed of a straight answer as to why the talented Wheldon was all of a sudden on the outside looking in to the sport of automobile racing, but he could only partake in the first four races of the year from a plasma-screen television like most fans across the country.

But thanks to Bryan Herta Autosport, Wheldon was being given a one-time ride for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. We all know what took place there on May 29th, with Wheldon passing J.R. Hildebrand in one of the greatest finishes the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" has ever seen.

However on May 6th, once the Mazda clinic had finished up, Wheldon took the laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that I will remember most. Part of the program involved giving pace-car rides to the younger drivers, and myself along with intern Courtney Cronin got to jump in the back-seat along with Wheldon. We got to take three laps with the 2005 500 champion, and for the first time in which I had spoken to him, he had taken off the persona of professional athlete Dan Wheldon. Behind the wheel, as he drove over 120 MPH while looking to the backseat to answer our questions (in one of the more terrifying rides of my life), he spoke to us as the real Dan Wheldon.

In a calm yet playful manner, Wheldon told us as difficult as it was to watch the drivers compete from his home in Florida, he truly just enjoyed doing the normal everyday tasks that normal adults get to partake in. He spoke with almost a joyous tone to his voice of playing the role of Mr. Mom for his sons Sebastian (age two) and newly born Oliver. With a smile on his face, Wheldon went on about how much fun it is to paint a house and go grocery shopping on a weekly basis. And then with a devilish grin, he said "I would almost prefer just to sit home, but I think I have already driven my wife Susie crazy."

Wheldon was fully relaxed, talking in a soft-tone you would never hear in his interviews, voicing about the subjects he rarely seemed to get asked. In a car he was driving, on his favorite track, we had gotten a glimpse as to what Dan in real life was like in his safe haven.

Eventually the conversation had to be led to the area of racing, which gave me the insight into writing my all-time favorite article for Fox59.com/sports. You can read the full story here, which takes a look at his 2011 Indianapolis 500 victory that only those inside the car at the time had access too.

After our final lap though, Dan in real life had to be transform back to Dan the automobile racer. Our intern Courtney performed a ten-and-a-half minute interview with Wheldon, who was all of a sudden promoting William Rast to the fullest and giving long-winded answers in a fully energized announcer's voice as to why he truly believed he had a shot at winning the Indianapolis 500. As he had mentioned, none of the other drivers had driven on an oval track during the 2011 season yet either, and that would put everybody on an even playing field.

That was the Dan that the majority of the people must have known. That Dan was a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, an ultimate competitor, and one of the most recognizable faces in the sport. He was loved by fans, media, and fellow racers alike.

For the short glimpse that I had gotten into his trusted bubble though, that is how I will forever remember Dan Wheldon. That Dan was also a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, but was a normal human being just like you or I that had truly learned to appreciate life.

It's just a shame though that all of the versions of him are gone now, because Dan Wheldon will truly be missed.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Human InterestAutomotive EquipmentManufacturing and EngineeringAl Unser Jr.Auto Racing
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