INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon’s biggest fans wanted one more chance to thank their favorite driver Monday.
One by one, they turned Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s main gate into a memorial for the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who was killed Sunday in a fiery crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Less than 24 hours later, the iron bars at Indy were decorated with flowers, notes of condolence, checkered flags, American and British flags and even half-gallon milk jugs, symbolic of the traditional victory drink at Indy.
"Dan was special, he was a hero," said Nick Garside, a 37-year-old Indianapolis resident who grew up in Wheldon’s home country of England. "We had a group of British fans who would get together the last nine years in the plaza and fly our flags. Dan gave me two of the happiest days of my life, and one of the saddest as well."
It was Indy where the 33-year-old IndyCar driver had his greatest successes and the most devoted fan base outside his native country.
He won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Michael Andretti’s team in 2005 and again in May for Bryan Herta’s team — in what was then his only scheduled race of the season. Along with being the 18th driver to win Indy twice, Wheldon also finished as the runner-up in 2009 and 2010 with Panther Racing and finished third in 2004.
Wheldon, who lived several years full-time in nearby Carmel, Ind., had a special bond with the community. Fans loved him for more than winning races, though.
"He was an amazing driver, an amazing father, an amazing person," said Paula Buis, a 41-year-old Indy resident who dropped off an American flag with flowers attached to it. "He smiled wide and he was always happy around everybody."
Track officials lowered the flags above the main office to half-staff, and Monday afternoon they hung a 30-foot banner showing Wheldon posing with the Indy 500’s famed Borg-Warner trophy.
Fans were honoring Wheldon long before the banner went up.
One brought a pumpkin with the No. 77 carved into it, the number Wheldon was driving Sunday at Las Vegas. Another placed two green candles on a handwritten note, explaining that the candles represented his two Indy wins. Another added a child’s drawing with a heart colored in crayon with the words "We Love You!"
The most poignant message: "To Dan’s children and their mommy, you are in our thoughts and prayers."