Twist of fate

ANN BABENCO REMEMBERS her first big win. It was in 1980. She saw an entry form at the supermarket for a contest held by Quaker Oats, and on a whim, she sent it in. She won a VCR. Since then, the 52-year-old from High Bridge, N.J., has been what she calls a sweeper -- someone who habitually enters sweepstakes and contests. Until recently, her biggest win was a tricked-out truck from the Miller Brewing Co., complete with a big-screen TV and a satellite dish. That was before last October, when she entered an online contest and found herself in Las Vegas with a chance to share $5 million with Dan Wheldon.

The 33-year-old Wheldon, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, had accepted a sponsor's challenge: He would start IndyCar's season finale from the back of the pack; if he somehow won the race, he'd split a $5 million bonus with a lucky fan chosen at random. That fan was Ann Babenco, whose love of fast cars began with a drag-racing boyfriend long ago. "Oh my god, I was ecstatic," she says today. On Oct. 16, the day of the race, she was with his crew, watching on a monitor, listening to Wheldon through headphones. She was about to hear his last words.

Babenco had met Wheldon the week before, when she was flown to Las Vegas, along with her sister, and taken to speak at a news conference. She was asked what she would do with the money. She'd buy a hot tub, she said. She was lying. Babenco suffers from agonizing lesions on her feet and needs an operation she can't afford. (She's on disability. She's already sold that tricked-out truck.) Babenco was going to spend the money on her surgery, but she didn't want to bring down the party. "So I said a hot tub," she says. She felt as though Wheldon somehow knew the truth. He told her that he would win, and she believed him. "He said our next race would be to spend the money," she says.

The days leading up to the race weren't always what Babenco hoped they would be. There were a lot of mistakes -- scheduling mix-ups and oversights. Babenco sometimes felt forgotten in the race-week chaos. But Wheldon was only beautiful with her. There's a photograph of them together at a party with their arms around each other, smiling big smiles. "With everything that went wrong, he was the only thing that was right," she says. On the morning of the race, he invited her into his trailer. Wheldon showed Babenco the tattoo he'd had done only the night before: SW, on his wrist, for his wife, Susie.

Soon he was in his car, and Babenco was on pit row. On the 11th lap, there was a horrific, fiery crash. Wheldon's car went airborne, spiraling in its flight, before tearing into the catch fence. His crew ripped off Babenco's headphones and rushed her into a skybox, and from there she saw the wreckage on the track. She saw the ambulances and the helicopters. Her husband, John, watching the race at home in New Jersey, knew that Wheldon had died, but Babenco, in the grandstands, did not. She and her sister were put on a golf cart to catch a bus to their hotel, and it was the cart driver who told them. The women began to cry. Later, IndyCar asked Babenco to speak at another news conference, but she refused. "We were devastated," she says, and now she's in tears again.

By the time she arrived home, reporters lined her street. Inside Edition offered to pay her for an interview, Babenco says, but she has never spoken publicly about that terrible day until now. Nearly a year later, the memories are still raw. She was subject to hate mail and cruel attacks online, as though she were somehow to blame for Wheldon's death. (She's never heard again from IndyCar, except for the tax forms for her trip.) She recently found herself crying in traffic. "I totally lost it," she says. "I often wonder what my place in all of this was. Why was I picked? Why did God pick me to meet this man when he was going to die? Maybe there's a higher purpose, but I can't see it. I don't know what the answers are."

It's only in the past few months that Babenco has started entering contests again. She's won a few small things: a $100 gift card from Sherwin-Williams; a gift basket from Omaha Steaks. But she still won't enter a contest for anything life changing. "I'm afraid of winning," she says.

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