ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Of all the indelible moments from Dan Wheldon’s public memorial service — fellow IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan serving as pallbearers, his father carrying his racing helmet and country music star Wynonna Judd singing two gripping songs — the heart-wrenching letter from his wife cut deepest.
Susie Wheldon’s letter to Dan left few eyes dry in the First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg.
Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, died last Sunday in IndyCar’s season finale at Las Vegas. He was remembered Saturday not only as a champion but as a devoted husband, caring father, loyal friend and beloved son. And one more thing: a neat freak.
Hundreds said goodbye to the 33-year-old Englishman-turned-Floridian during a service that included a eulogy by the best man at his wedding, Judd’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” alongside a church choir and letters by his wife and sister that offered a detailed portrait of the popular, fun-loving and always tidy driver.
“My sweet Dan, my whole body is aching, down to the deepest part of my soul,” Susie wrote in a letter read by family friend Michael Johnson. “I keep thinking this is a bad dream.”
Susie wrote about how scared she is that she’s going to forget things, how everything is moving so quickly and that she has to remember to breathe.
“My heart is scattered in a million pieces,” she wrote. “I just want to wake up and hear your reassuring voice.”
Dixon read another touching letter, this one from Wheldon’s little sister, Holly.
“I know a lot of sisters would describe their brothers as amazing,” Holly wrote. “But mine was truly one of a kind.”
Holly recalled having the “same compulsive disorder” as Dan and remembered spending late nights cleaning the floor and drinking tea together.
“My brother was born to race,” she wrote. “Dan without racing is like a cup of tea without milk, and Dan loved tea.”
She wrote about the great times they had on trips to the United States as kids and promised to “protect your family like you protected me.”
Wheldon left behind two young sons, 2-year-old Sebastian and 7-month-old Oliver. They were on hand for the service. Close friends and family members left the church and rode to the cemetery. Mourners filled the church, then watched Franchitti, Dixon, Kanaan and Wheldon’s three brothers load the casket. Some waved goodbye as the caravan drove away.
Team owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske attended the service, along with just about every IndyCar driver as well as some from other racing series.
“The past week’s been a tough one,” driver Graham Rahal said. “When it’s someone like Dan, it really puts it all in perspective. He was a guy that was certainly friendly with everybody on the circuit and everybody close. There’s just something about him. It’s certainly a tough loss.”
Drivers Will Power and Pippa Mann, both hurt in the 15-car crash that cast a shadow across the sport, were still dealing with injuries Saturday. Power was hobbling from a back injury; Mann’s right arm was bandaged. She had surgery on her burned right pinkie.
Many of them were planning to attend another service in Indianapolis on Sunday.
“It’s almost indescribable,” driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “This is something that I never really experienced in my life. I had a good conversation with Dan on Saturday night about everything that was going to come up. In 2012, we were going to be teammates (at Andretti Autosport).
“I just really looked up to him in many ways. He’s a champion of our sport, he’s everything you would want to be on and off the track. Good has to come of this; it has to. We’ll all go on racing in his name. It’s heartbreaking to see Susie and their two sons and the family. We’re just there for them.”
Drivers and other mourners told stories about Wheldon on a video to be kept for his sons. The letters from Susie and Holly, as well as the eulogy by Wheldon’s best man, would be a powerful addition.
Adrian Sussmann, the best man, talked about how Dan met Susie, who was a public relations representative for Wheldon’s racing sponsor, and how they kept their relationship secret for so long. He spoke about how Wheldon went from the “Dream Team” at Andretti, which also included Franchitti, Kanaan and Byran Herta, to the “Little Team That Could,” the one-car team Herta put together last spring that Wheldon drove to victory in the Indy 500 in May.
“It was a finish that even Hollywood couldn’t have written,” Sussmann said.
Sussmann joked about Wheldon’s obsession to be organized, his pursuit of perfection that made everyone around him better, how he felt that he never gave a bad interview and that he was the rock of the family.
“His happiness came from the fact that he had everything in life that money can’t buy,” Sussmann said.
Susie’s letter recalled meeting Dan at a photo shoot in 2003, when she asked the “cocky and stylish” driver what his backup plan was if racing didn’t work out.
“I don’t have one,” Wheldon told her.
“I never met anyone who believes in themselves as much as you do,” she wrote in the letter.
She said Dan had equal passion for racing as he did his family. She promised that their boys — she called them Wheldon’s “greatest accomplishment” — will grow up knowing what a loving father he was.
“I can still feel your love around me,” she wrote. “Not even death can take that away.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
Photos from the Wheldon Memorial: