Dan Wheldon's Memory Looms Over 2012 Indy 500

Dan Wheldon is literally smiling down on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A massive banner showing a picture of the late driver hangs above the 16th Street entrance to the world's most famous speedway, reminding all who enter the Brickyard of a loss that remains heartbreaking to so many.

Wheldon's image adorns the tickets to Sunday's race. Every fan will be given white cardboard sunglasses – an homage to his style – upon entering the track. And Wheldon's 2011 Indy 500 car – the one he drove to Victory Circle in stunning fashion – will be taken for a solo lap on Sunday by former team owner Bryan Herta.

The affable Wheldon, who was killed in an October crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, will be remembered fondly as a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner in pre-race ceremonies. But the months since his death have done little to soothe the pain of those close to him and the fans who adored him, and the emotions are still very raw.

"I got to the (drivers' motorhome) lot, and his bus was always two across from mine," four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti said softly when speaking with reporters on Thursday. "And it was a different bus this year."

Franchitti is one of many drivers who have had Wheldon on their minds recently. They all have, really. From telling stories at dinner to seeing fans with "Lionheart" T-shirts everywhere they look, the drivers can feel Wheldon's presence all around the track.

The memories are happy, but will be tainted with deep sadness until more time has passed.

"Whether you had a good day or a bad day, it was those days when you'd be in the bus lot after (practice), all the drivers talking, and here would come Dan," Franchitti said. "(He'd be) bounding along, smiilng, giving everybody a hard time. He's definitely been in my thoughts a lot.

"He's never far away."

As difficult as the day may be for Wheldon's former colleagues and fans, it will be unimaginable for his family and close friends.

Susie Wheldon, his widow, has been at the track this weekend with the couple's two young children and has accepted several awards on his behalf. She received a two-minute standing ovation during the public drivers' meeting on Saturday.

"Dan loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it meant to win here," she said Thursday after receiving his championship ring. "I'm proud to be here to represent him as a two-time winner. I'm proud to be here with my children, Sebastian and Oliver, to celebrate their father's life and legacy and him as a great champion."

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