The thing that always struck me about Dan Wheldon was that "he gets it."
The guy was obviously a natural talent in a race car, and with his good looks and smooth manner of speaking, he seemed to be born to talk in front of cameras, too.
The "he gets it" comment is one that media folks will throw out once in a while. When it's used, at least the way I use it, it's not just about someone being amenable to the media, about someone being a "good quote." Those things help, of course, and both could certainly be applied to Wheldon.
But truly getting it goes beyond a snappy one-liner or smiling at cameras. Wheldon had a sense of place, purpose and perspective that made him not just a champion of auto racing but a tremendous ambassador for his sport.
The best example I remember, and I'm certainly not alone here, is how he represented his sport and the Indianapolis 500 after winning the 2005 race which would become known as Danicamania's coming out party. He also was quite eloquent in talking about fatherhood before and after his Cinderella victory in this summer's Indy 500.
I did a story from Watkins Glen International's Indy Car stop in 2006, just after Sam Hornish had won the Indy 500. With the win putting Hornish in the unofficial position of spokesman of his series, I spent part of the story discussing how well Wheldon had done in that regard.
Here's an excerpt:
After open-wheel racing has struggled in two separate circuits (IRL and Champ Car) for a decade, the IRL has seen a resurgence in the last two years thanks in part to the emergence of Danica Patrick (15th among 19 drivers in practice).
A year ago this week, Wheldon was the series' perfect spokesman in the midst of Danicamania, saying in just about every interview how proud he was to have won "the greatest race in the world" and revving the hyperbole engine loudly by calling it the "biggest sporting event in the world."
Wheldon relished the role so much he even wore a T-shirt that read "I actually won the Indy 500" after rookie Patrick seized magazine covers by becoming the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before she finished fourth. The T-shirt was more fun than sour grapes, but no matter the recipe it was great PR. It's hard to picture the reserved Hornish pulling a similar stunt.
"He's obviously a different personality than me," said Wheldon, 27. "I think he'll represent the Indianapolis 500 very well -- Sam's a good role model for everyone involved."
When asked about his teammate taking on the role of Indy 500 champion, Castroneves said with a smile, "The good news is, he's definitely improved his personality a lot." He was clearly joking, but it's not something one would say if one were talking about, say, the ebullient Wheldon.
As the 5-foot-9 bubbly British-born bachelor with short spiky blond hair zipped his way down to his pit stall Friday in a motor scooter -- most drivers use them to get around the track -- he playfully waved his fist at a team member of a competitor before mock-karate-kicking another bystander.
A few minutes later, the 6-foot, Elvis-like sideburn-wearing Hornish, 26, smoothly drove his scooter down the same path, with wife Crystal riding piggyback."
The entire story is here.
Rest in peace, Dan Wheldon.