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Memorial service celebrates life of racer Dan Wheldon

By the CNN Wire Staff
October 24, 2011 -- Updated 0043 GMT (0843 HKT)
Two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon died in a fiery wreck at a Las Vegas racetrack on October 16.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon died in a fiery wreck at a Las Vegas racetrack on October 16.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The memorial is by turns emotional and humorous
  • NEW: Dan Wheldon's teammates recall practical jokes
  • NEW: He is remembered as a devoted family man
  • The two-time Indy 500 winner died October 16 after a crash in Las Vegas

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate WTSP.

(CNN) -- The racing sanctioning body IndyCar held a public memorial service, punctuated by laughter and tears, Sunday to celebrate the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon.

Those at the memorial, held at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, recalled Wheldon not only as a successful driver, but remembered his winning charm, his sense of humor, and his devotion to his family and his fans.

Wheldon, 33, was near the back of a 34-car field at the Las Vegas Indy 300 on October 16 when he got mixed up in a crash that saw several cars spin out of control and burst into flames, spewing smoke and debris. He died of head injuries.

"The victories and the accolades, they didn't define him," said IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. "His strong character, his enthusiastic approach to life, and the love of family, friends and fans did.

"There was a reason he was a fan favorite," Bernard said. "I'd see him go out of his way to shake a serviceman's hand, or sign a young man's autograph, or do that extra interview, or just joke around with the drivers. Dan loved life and it always showed."

Featured on stage beside the speakers Sunday was a car Bernard said Wheldon had been testing. It had "cutting-edge enhancements that promised to move the sport of racing and automotive engineering forward." It also had additional safety features, testament to Wheldon's commitment to improving the sport and increasing safety for drivers, he said.

"He would want the drivers and the teams and the series to unite and to work together," Bernard said. "He'd want us to strive to make our sport safer."

The memorial featured music from country artists Reba McEntire and The Band Perry. Wheldon's family was in attendance.

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"It was a privilege for us to witness a young, carefree racer blossom into a true champion and a devoted family man," said one of Wheldon's managers, Mickey Ryan.

He recalled Wheldon partying all night after his first Indianapolis 500 win in 2005, then falling asleep while on hold waiting for an early morning radio interview. After his second win in 2011, he pledged to take his children to a Disney park, and dedicated the win to his mother, who was battling Alzheimer's disease, Ryan and manager Adrian Sussman said.

The two issued a message of gratitude from Wheldon's family.

"They'd like you to know how much they appreciate the amazing outpouring of sympathy, flowers, gifts and notes of condolences," Sussman said. "It's been a great comfort for them to know that there are so many others that share in their grief."

Despite the somber event, speakers recalled many humorous moments, recalling Wheldon's penchant for practical jokes, his compulsive neatness and his liking for tight racing suits.

Drivers Brian Herta, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti -- Wheldon's former teammates -- recalled messing Wheldon's locker up on purpose once and then waiting for him before a run, as he could not come out and drive unless the locker was straightened.

"He made us look like pigs," Herta said.

They also recalled entering Wheldon's hotel room in Japan once, stealing one of each of his shoes and sending them back to America, along with taking his television and some of his hair products.

Herta said he was not saying goodbye to Wheldon. "Goodbye is final," he said. "Our friendship won't end."

On Saturday, hundreds gathered in St. Petersburg, Florida, for Wheldon's funeral. Born in Emberton, England, Wheldon had settled in the west Florida city with his wife and two young sons.

Susie Wheldon spoke to her late husband through a letter read aloud by family friend Michael Johnson at the First Presbyterian Church. Audio from that message, and other parts of Saturday's otherwise private ceremony, were recorded and released by CNN affiliate WTSP.

"I am so scared. Scared I'm going to forget things as time goes by: the way you smell, the sound of your voice, the touch of your hand," she wrote.

Country singer Wynonna Judd -- whose half-sister, actress Ashley Judd, is married to Franchitti, one of Wheldon's pallbearers -- sang at the funeral.

Besides those inside, dozens of people stood nearby the church to pay their respects.

NASCAR said it will provide teams at the Talladega Superspeedway this weekend with a decal in honor of Wheldon.

The decal features an image of a knight and the word "Lionheart." Wheldon likened himself to Richard the Lionheart, the 12th-century British warrior king, and often wore the image on the back of his helmets.

"When I first started racing, a lot of the guys said that I raced with a lot of heart, occasionally not my head, but always with a lot of heart, like the way that Richard the Lionheart fought in battle," Wheldon wrote on a sponsor's blog in 2010.

CNN's John Branch contributed to this report.

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