It was Dan Wheldon’s first race in Japan and I was sitting in my hotel room next door to his when I got an idea. Dan wasn’t in his room, so I went down to the front desk and I pretended I was him. I said, Hi, I’m Dan Wheldon. I lost my room key. Can I have an extra one? And the girl gave me his room key. It was that easy. So me and some of the other drivers went to his room, and when I swung the door open his room was impeccable. Everything was organized perfectly.
Dan Wheldon was a perfectionist — no, he was anal — about everything. He was completely crazy. At his house, he had all his shoes lined up neatly in a row. In his bathroom, all his hair products were lined up with the labels facing out like on the shelf at the drug store, and he had more hair product than any woman I’ve ever met in my life. He was always trying to look good and presentable. You’d never see Dan wearing an old t-shirt. With Dan Wheldon, everything always had to be perfect.
So me and the other drivers went into his room and moved everything around. We didn’t trash the place, we just disorganized everything because we knew it would drive him crazy. He had three pairs of shoes in his room and we took one shoe from each pair and FedExed them back to America so he only had one pair of shoes for the whole trip — the pair he was wearing. Then we went and hid in my room and waited for him to get back.
When he got back, he went to his room first, then he came straight to my room. His hair was perfect, as usual, and he was dressed impeccably. And he was furious. It was the funniest thing. The rest of us were just rolling around laughing like a bunch of little kids, but I’ve never seen anyone so mad in my entire life.
He got me back — plenty of times. He was a rookie that year and we were teammates, and we were always pulling pranks on each other.
As time went on, we became best friends. We hung out all the time. The other drivers and I joked with him a lot about how he was so anal, but that’s what made him a great racer. He was so precise, and his attention to detail was second to none. I loved Dan Wheldon.
The day he died after his accident in Las Vegas was one of the toughest days of my life.
Car racing is a dangerous sport. Every one of us drivers knows that. When we lost Dan Wheldon, it was a tragedy. A lot of people outside the sport talked about how senseless it was. He’d had a lot of success — he’d won Rookie of the Year, a pair of Indy 500s and an IndyCar championship. He had a beautiful wife and two beautiful boys. He had a perfect life.
So people wanted to know, Why was he racing? Why put all that on the line to race in a sport where you know you could get killed?
Nobody gets into racing because they want to be rich or famous. We race because we love racing.
Four years after Dan Wheldon, we lost another great driver and a fantastic human being in Justin Wilson. And the day Justin passed — August 24, 2015 — was the day all us drivers started getting asked the same questions we got after Dan Wheldon’s death. Our friends, our fans — everyone wanted to know: Why do you do it? Why do you still race knowing the risks?
The answer — and it’s not a very popular one — is because that’s what we do. We’re race car drivers. We race cars.
Nobody gets into racing because they want to be rich or famous. We race because we love racing. And to race, especially at this level, you have to be willing to take the risks and put it all on the line. A lot of people choose not to, and those are the guys who either never made it or never tried. Race car drivers are just wired a little bit differently than most people. You have to be a little crazy to do what we do.
In every sport, there are great risks. I understand the risks in racing are greater, but when you’re talking to an athlete who loves what he does — whether you’re a football player in a sport where brain injuries are an issue or a race car driver where there are accidents that are sometimes fatal — we don’t think about that stuff. That’s just the reality of our sport. It’s dangerous, and it’s been that way since the day they created the first race car.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make it safer. After Dan’s death, we made improvements to the helmets. We made changes to the car. We got better and we got safer. We evolved after tragedy. In the wake of Justin’s accident, we’re brainstorming and testing new ways we can make racing safer while still preserving the integrity and tradition of our sport.
But we can’t make it 100 percent safe, and we’re okay with that. If you made it 100 percent safe and there were no limits to push and no risks to take and nothing at stake, then anybody could drive a race car. And if anybody could do my job, I wouldn’t want that job. To take away the risk in car racing would take away what it means to be a race car driver. Nobody wants that. We should always be looking for new ways to evolve and minimize the risk, but no matter what we do, there will always be accidents that we can’t prevent. There will always be risk. There will always be danger.
I can get in my car and drive to the grocery store and get into an accident that I couldn’t predict and I could get killed. Am I going to stop driving a car? Am I going to stop going to the grocery store? No. I’m going to take all the precautions I can take, and if an accident happens, so be it.
The same is true on the race track.
Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson aren’t the only friends I’ve lost to racing accidents. Growing up, Ayrton Senna was my idol. He was a fellow Brazilian and a driver in F1, and he was the man for me.
He was killed in a crash in 1994 when I was 20 years old. I felt such loss because he was my racing hero, but also because when I was a young driver I got to meet him and he invited me to his home. We became friends.
I cried when Ayrton Senna died, but not once did I ever think about not racing. It never affected me in that way.
There have been others since. More than I care to count. But that’s a part of our sport. We’re trying every day to get better and get safer, and the cars are 1,000 times safer than they were in previous years. But it’s still racing and there are still risks. Our families may not fully understand why we take those risks, but they love us and support us. If we think being in the car is the best place for us — and we do — they’re behind us.
The week after Justin’s death was a difficult week. There were questions and tributes and tears and sadness. The IndyCar family is just that, a family, and Justin’s loss shook us all pretty hard.
To be honest, the first time I was able to relax and not think about Justin after his death was when I got back in the car the following weekend at Sonoma. Once I got back into the car, I could focus on racing. I’m more comfortable in the race car than anywhere else on Earth. It was that most natural thing for me to do.
For me, Dan Wheldon’s death was devastating. They canceled the rest of the race that day, and to be honest, if we had decided to keep racing I don’t think I would have been able to get back into the car. It had that big of an impact on me. It happened in the last race of the season, so I had the entire six-month offseason to think about if I wanted to keep racing or if I was going to be afraid the next time I got into the car. I tried to cope the best way that I could, and when the first race of the following season came around, I was back in the car competing. It was in St. Petersburg. Dan’s home.
And I went out there and raced, like Dan would have.
If Dan Wheldon or Justin Wilson or Ayrton Senna or any of the other drivers we’ve lost in past years could stand in front of the rest of us drivers and tell us how they’d want us to cope with their deaths, they’d all say the same thing: “Get your ass back in the car. Go do what we do and make it better.”
So that’s what we do. It sounds twisted, but you have to be a little crazy to do what we do. We’re okay with that. We wouldn’t have it any other way.