My greatest compliment: Dan Wheldon "got it"

The motorsports community is mourning the death of a great champion, as two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon was killed in an accident Sunday at Las Vegas.

It’s a tragic loss on so many levels, but rather than speculate on what happened and what could have prevented it, I think we should stop and take the time to celebrate the life of someone who had a very positive impact on this sport.

As a promoter, the greatest compliment I can give someone -- whether it is a driver, sponsor, PR person, etc. -- is that they “get it.” Wheldon got it. It’s really against the nature of drivers to “get it” and like it. They think about driving race cars 24 hours a day. But Wheldon did.

Wheldon visited the Dallas/Fort Worth market several times helping promote Texas Motor Speedway races. From playing soccer with FC Dallas to being outfitted like a cowboy and leading the Fort Worth Herd cattle drive down Exchange Avenue, he was always willing to put his promoter hat on. He was actually rather good at soccer. I think that British heritage had something to do with it.

The only thing he was hesitant to do was give up his Prada shoes when we donned him with western apparel. You’ve got a guy riding with a herd of longhorns in chaps and a cowboy hat, and he’s wearing Prada shoes. Oh, how he loved shoes. He ended up wearing the boots, but only because he didn’t want cattle mess on his designer shoes.

And then there was “The Rumble at the Speedway,” perhaps my favorite promotion of all time. After Danica Patrick confronted and grabbed Weldon over her displeasure of him cutting her off at Milwaukee in 2007, we hung a “Danica vs. Wheldon” banner on the Victory Lane Broadcast Center that featured the two drivers’ head shots.

“If he thinks I’m not going to remember that, HE’S CRAZY!” was the quote next to Patrick’s face. Above Wheldon’s, “She’s just feeling the pressure of not winning races.” We also sent out a “Tale of the Tape” to both local and national media with Dan "The Battlin’ Brit" Wheldon vs. Danica "The Phoenix Firebird" Patrick.

I don’t think Patrick was very amused. She didn’t like it. Wheldon, on the other hand, played along. He walked across the stage during driver intros shadow-boxing to the Rocky theme song before the Bombardier Learjet 550k. I have a pair of boxing gloves in my office signed by both Patrick and Wheldon that reminds me of how much fun we had with that promotion.

Wheldon was the perfect combo -- he had a great appreciation for the sport and could drive the wheels off a race car. Because of that, he had developed a huge fan base and had become the most popular driver in the series. Those fans will remember him for his passion and dignity.

And, of course, that contagious smile will never be forgotten.