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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Dan Wheldon won two Indianapolis 500s, in 2005 and last year. He died in an October crash in Las Vegas.

Indy lost its truest champion

– He pops up now at the oddest moments, like every ghost in this place so crowded with them. You walk down through the pavilion in the noon heat, and there, right at the end of a display of the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and MotoGP 2011 champions. …

Dan Wheldon, ladies and gentlemen.

Arms outstretched. Toothpaste-ad teeth gleaming. Gone and gone.

So strange not to see him here in the flesh, not to watch him arch that English eyebrow and give you the arch English quip. First May since 1947 that the defending Indianapolis 500 champion never made it back alive to defend his title, and his absence, his gone-ness punches a hole in this month far more substantial than the absence of IndyCar’s presumptive cash cow, Danica Patrick.

“Dario, Danica put such a spin on this series,” someone asked two-time 500 winner Dario Franchitti this month. “What is it like not having that going on here?”

Bewilderment from the always accommodating Scot.

“I don’t understand the question,” he replied.

“What is the impact of not having that person that brought in non-sports publications?” his interrogator said, trying again.

More bewilderment.

“There’s been no impact,” Franchitti said.

Not having Wheldon here, though, … well, that’s a whole other tale, and the only corroboration you need is to summon the memory of Franchitti sobbing in his race car before the field went out to do a five-lap tribute on the October day Wheldon died at Las Vegas. The man was an outsized presence not only in open-wheel racing but everywhere – even NASCAR, in the days after his death, paid tribute to the driver everyone called Lionheart – there was no fiercer advocate for his series and for Indianapolis in particular.

The man’s heart was right out there on his sleeve come the month of May, even on those occasions when the event could have used fewer testimonials and more critical thinking.

“I think to be honest, this race is always big,” Wheldon told me a few years back – and for a man addicted to telling the unvarnished truth, nothing he ever said was truer than that.

And for that, of course, Indy loved him. And so Sunday they will remember Wheldon by handing out white cardboard sunglasses – white shades were a Wheldon thing – and on laps 26 and 98 (the numbers of the cars in which he won the 500) several hundred thousand people will put them on in tribute.

His image will adorn the official Race Day tech inspection stickers on all 33 starting cars. His wife, Susie, will take part in the public drivers’ meeting today. And prior to the parade lap, his 2011 Indy team owner, Bryan Herta, will make a slow lap of honor in the No. 98 Dallara/Honda that Wheldon brought to the checkers a year ago after JR Hildebrand hit the wall on the final corner of the final lap.

It was a crazy, giddy, Wheldon-esque triumph, and you can only hope for a reprise Sunday. That would be the best tribute of all to a man who loved the place like few others.

“I do feel that responsibility, to a degree,” he said one time, when asked about being one of the faces of his sport.

“That comes along with being a past Indy 500 winner and a champion.”

Whether here or gone.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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