Monday night in Milton Keynes. Cold, dark, neon lights and roundabouts as far as the eye can see. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? But it was an uplifting night. The motor racing community had come together to remember a friend.
Last summer I spoke at length to Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. I liked him very much, found him to be open, thoughtful and honest. Along with a great many others, I was deeply shocked by his untimely death in the IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas. So I happily accepted an invitation from sports car racer Johnny Mowlem, who conceived and organised the event, to go to the Daytona Milton Keynes circuit to celebrate Dan’s memory with a kart race that raised £20,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society.
The response from fellow drivers was incredible, his mates and past rivals happy to give up their time in memory of the man who went to America to make his name. Each team was led by a star driver. Jenson Button, who pipped Wheldon to the 1998 Formula Ford title, was back on a kart for one night only, winning the race with Dan’s father Clive. A mischievous ‘cash for penalties’ system ensured lots of money was raised and that Messers Button and David Coulthard, who came second with Dan’s brothers Elliott and Ashley and Jason Moore, kept the likes of Anthony Davidson well down the field. Black flags and other spurious penalties meant the winners went home with their wallets that bit lighter. All great fun, and the 2009 World Champion was just happy to be there.
“From the first year I raced, Dan was the guy to beat with the big number one on the front of his kart,” said JB. “We had some great tussles, he was my main challenger. I think we only fell out once and that was when we went to Formula Ford. We didn’t all make it to Formula 1, but he should have gone there, and it’s just great to see so many people here for him tonight.”
Jenson’s father John was present and for him the night stirred memories of the old days. “Your mind goes back, they were the real glory days. All the F1 drivers love to talk about their karting and Dan was a special guy. His death hit Jenson very hard – they were always battling on the track – and that’s why he’s here.”
Dan had become close friends with Dario Franchitti in America and the Scot was at Milton Keynes for one final farewell.
“It’s great to see so many people here for him, he would have loved this,” he said. “You do anything to beat the other guy on the track, but we became very close off the track, and then what happened in Las Vegas reminds you of what’s really important. For me it’s bitter-sweet, and to see so many people here on a freezing night says a lot about Dan. Even those F1 softies Jenson and DC have come over from Monaco… It’s terrific.”
Having returned to the real Daytona in 2011, the darkness was no problem for Martin Brundle, who came dressed in his motorcycle gear. Fireproofs were swapped for ‘frostproofs’ as the track temperature hovered around the freezing mark.
“I wish I’d remembered my rib protector,” said Martin, “but hey, we’re here to show our respect for what Dan achieved and who he was. We race each other hard but it’s a close community, and when the helmets come off there’s huge respect, dare I say affection, among the drivers and that’s why we’re here for Dan.”
Fellow broadcaster Coulthard recalled something that his mate Button had told him earlier. “I was a generation ahead of Dan but Jenson was there in the karting days. He told me that when he woke up in the morning the person he feared most to compete against was Dan – not because he was a scary individual, but because he was so talented. And he was just a very nice person too which is what makes it all so tragic.”
Despite the frosty darkness, you could feel the warmth of friendship. This was the perfect farewell to Dan Wheldon after a year of triumph and tragedy.