History will now always show that the last Izod IndyCar Series race Dan Wheldon completed was at Kentucky Speedway.
In what was a tuneup for Wheldon's bid to claim a $5 million bonus by winning from the back in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas, Wheldon replaced Alex Tagliani in a car owned by Sam Schmidt and finished 14th on Oct. 2 at Sparta.
"He raced at our track a lot," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said Thursday of Wheldon. "It's just heartbreaking."
If you've followed the news coverage since Wheldon, 33, died from head injuries suffered in a massive racing accident last Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, you have probably noticed how often the British driver has been remembered for his winning way with people.
The folks at Kentucky Speedway can tell you all about that.
In 2005, not long after Wheldon won the first of what would be two Indianapolis 500 victories in his career, the driver came to Cincinnati to help promote the IndyCar race at Kentucky.
"We had him in downtown Cincinnati and he was making like a stop, and then we had someplace to go after that," said Mike Schmaltz, one of the Kentucky Speedway publicists. "We were doing a media obligation in the Game Day Sports Cafe.
"But he had just won Indy, so (fans) started to recognize him. He stayed for basically like a half-hour, signing autographs. I was telling him, we can do as much or little of this as you want, but he was like, 'No, I'll do whatever you want.' That was the type of the guy he was."
This year, Wheldon's decision to run in the Izod IndyCar Series event at Kentucky came late. Even though he was again the Indy 500 champion in 2011, the driver did not have a full-time ride.
"We found out about a week before our race that he was going to run," Simendinger said. "So our P.R. staff put together a quick promotion where a fan could win a chance to go shopping at Macy's Department Store — a big seller of Izod products — with the Indy 500 champion, Dan Wheldon."
The winner of the drawing was Trey Taylor, an 8-year-old boy from Cincinnati. On Sept. 30, Trey showed up at the Florence Mall Macy's for his shopping date with Wheldon.
Said Simendinger: "I didn't go, but after it was over I said, 'How did it go?' Our guys were like, 'It was unbelievable. (Wheldon) is incredible.' Come to find out, not only did he take this kid (shopping), he invites him to be his guest at the race."
On the Sunday of the race, Wheldon had Trey and members of his family tour the driver's hauler.
"He promised to stay in touch," Schmaltz said of Wheldon. "He signed one of the kid's items, 'Your friend, Dan Wheldon.' He was just really nice."
Two weeks later, Wheldon was dead.
Since Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000, there have been no on-track fatalities. But Simendinger, who before his motorsports days helped Jerry Carroll run Thoroughbred horse-racing track Turfway Park, said the fear of it happening is always present.
"Every promoter's worst nightmare," he said. "It was the same when I was running Turfway. When you are working in these environments, you get to know (the competitors) on a personal level.
"Yes, they are people doing what they love to do. Yes, they get into the cars knowing there is risk. ... But you always, always want safety to be the number one thing. I love having a great show and I love having (the racing) be close, but you never want that at the expense of safety."
The record will show that Wheldon raced nine times in Sparta. He never won, but did finish third three different times (2004, '05 and '10).
What the married father of two small children left behind at Kentucky Speedway was something ultimately more important than race wins, however.
Goodwill and a good name.
Simendinger said he will always remember what turned out to be the final drivers' introduction at Kentucky Speedway in which Wheldon participated.
As the driver worked his way down the handshake line after his name was called, the track GM said he thought of how nice Wheldon had been to the little boy who won the shopping trip. That, and the fact that Wheldon would be competing for the $5 million bonus two weeks later at Las Vegas.
"Wheldon came down to me and I said, 'Dan, I hope you win today, I really do. But I really hope you win in two weeks,' " Simendinger said. "He just kind of chuckled, and said, 'So do I.' "
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or email@example.com.