Month of May: A Page in History; Looking Back on Two-Time Indianapolis 500 Champion Dan Wheldon

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The following story is part of Race Chaser Online’s special ‘Month of May’ series both building up to Memorial Day weekend’s runnings of the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 and paying tribute to several special dates during the month along the way.

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Story by Race Chaser Online Northeast Correspondent Hunter Smith — Robert Laberge/Getty Images North America photo —

The Indianapolis 500.

It’s a race that young racers dream of winning. Being able to add to the long list of legends to have won the spectacular venue is an achievement one can only hope to accomplish.

But, being able to win it twice?  That takes legendary prowess and skill.

Dan Wheldon accomplished that very feat. However, Wheldon was more than just a champion. He was “a father, husband, and friend to many,” as former teammate Danica Patrick once described him.

Wheldon grew up in England, but his dreams of racing in and winning the Indianapolis 500 brought him to America — where he made the most of every opportunity he was given, en route to his American Dream of racing, winning, and being a role model in, and out, of the IZOD Indycar Series.

Wheldon was born on June 22, 1978 in Emberton, Buckinghamshire, England to parents Clive and Sue Wheldon. He also had two brothers, Austin and Ashley, and a sister, Holly.  In 2008, he married his wife Susie, who was his long-time assistant and partner in life. Wheldon also loved being a father to his two sons, Oliver and Sebastian.

He started pursuing his dream at the young age of four racing go- karts across England, and it did not take long for Wheldon to start ruffling other racers’ feathers. While in karts he started a rivalry with 2009 Formula One champion, Jenson Button — a rivalry that fueled the Brit’s passion for being behind the wheel even further.

Making the move to the United States in 1999, Wheldon embarked on making his IndyCar dream a reality.  Racing in the Ford Formula 2000 Series and the feeder divisions of CART, his true success did not come until 2000 while he was racing in the Toyota Atlantic Series. Wheldon was second in points in his first and only year with the division, racking up wins at MAZDA Raceway Laguna Seca and Homestead Miami.

With so much success in so little time, Wheldon caught the eye of John Barnes, owner of Panther Racing in what was then the IZOD IndyCar Series.  Dan was able to compete in two races for Panther Racing in 2002 as a teammate to two- time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr.  Wheldon continued to impress, scoring a top-ten finish in only his second race before signing with powerhouse team Andretti Autosport for the full 2003 campaign, taking over for the retiring Michael Andretti. While Wheldon did not find victory lane that year, he did win the Rookie of the Year award.

2004 was the breakout season for Wheldon. His first IndyCar Series win came in Japan at Twin Ring Motegi. After that win, his confidence boosted and he never looked back. Winning a total of three races and coming in second in points to teammate Tony Kanaan, Wheldon said after that year that he wanted more; more wins, championships and overall accomplishments.

That wish finally came true on May 29, 2005.

That was the moment when Wheldon made his dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 a reality. The day was historic on multiple levels.  Wheldon won his first Indianapolis 500, Andretti Autosport won their first Indianapolis 500, it was the first Indianapolis 500 win for a car numbered 26 and Wheldon became the first Englishman to win the race since Graham Hill in 1966.  Wheldon claimed beforehand to have never cried in a race car, but on that day in 2005, he could not help but hold back tears.

The 500 win was the sign of a dream season. Wheldon and the Andretti team won a record six races (including four of the first five races) and the IndyCar Series championship.  To date, Wheldon still holds the record for most wins in a single season with six, tied with former teammate Sam Hornish Jr.

Wheldon then left Andretti at the end of that incredible year to race for rival team Chip Ganassi Racing until 2008.  While with Ganassi, Wheldon won five races from 2006 and 2008, and also won the legendary Rolex 24 sports-car race at the Daytona International Speedway. In 2009, Wheldon returned to Panther Racing and won a single race ( race the next two years.

Then sponsor troubles bit, and bit hard.

Wheldon found himself without a car in 2011, but with the help of Bryan Herta Autosport and sunglass maker WilliamRast, Wheldon found himself in the field at the 2011 Indianapolis 500. It was the only race on his contract.

The Brit said before the race that he was going to do all he could to win it — and that is exactly what he did. While running second to rookie JR Hildebrand on the final lap, Hildebrand slammed into the turn four wall, allowing Wheldon to capitalize and whiz by to the twin checkers.

In that moment, as if one Indianapolis 500 win wasn’t enough, Wheldon had finally won a second. When asked to compare the two wins, the likable veteran said after the fact that the win in 2011 was much more emotional.

From there, Wheldon found his way to the TV booth for several events before returning to the cockpit for Sam Schmidt one final time.

The fateful day was October 16, 2011. The race — the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The atmosphere was electric. and Verizon put a bounty on Wheldon for the race. If he dropped to the rear of the field (34th starting position) before the green flag and came through to win, he and a lucky fan would split a purse of $5 million.

Sadly, however, that chance at glory on lap 200 would never come.

On lap 11, contact between James Hinchcliffe and Wade Cunningham sparked a 15-car maelstrom in turns one and two that destroyed race cars in its wake and sent two drivers through the air. One of them was Wheldon.

The Englishman passed away at 1:54 p.m. Pacific time of blunt force trauma to the head after impacting the catch fence at the top of turn two, the first fatality in IndyCar competition since Paul Dana in a practice crash at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.  It was later revealed that Wheldon had signed with Andretti Autosport full-time for 2012, set to replace the departing Danica Patrick.

But along with winning races and championships, Dan was — and still is — a role model to many.  He was a supporter of Alzheimer’s foundations and research, due to his mother having the disease.  Wheldon spent hours at the track or doing off-track appearances signing autographs for fans of all ages.

Most importantly, no matter what he was doing, Wheldon always did it with a smile. And that, above all else, is what so many still remember about him today.

Wheldon, while no longer with us on race days, still has a major impact every race. Ironically, Wheldon had been working with IndyCar in 2011, developing and perfecting a new and safer car for the series to race in 2012. That car, upon its implementation, was named the DW-12 in his honor, and is the chassis still in use today in the now-Verizon IndyCar Series. Wheldon also inspired new safety features on the race cars, race tracks and driver’s helmets.

Every race Wheldon competed in was always based around pressure; he even admitted as much himself.  In an interview with ESPN, Wheldon once explained that he always put pressure on himself to perform. His goal in racing, to come to America and be a successful and well known IndyCar driver, was accomplished because of the standards he held himself to. It meant that the only person he had to impress was himself.

And based on his shining attitude and sparkle even moments before the green flag dropped, it was clear he did just that.

Wheldon has been described as multiple things ranging from a “little brother from another mother,” by teammate Tagliani, to a “perfect ambassador for the sport of auto racing” by Jeff Belskus, the president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Because of those model behaviors and his deep legacy, Wheldon’s dream of a healthy modern era for IndyCar lives on today both on and off the track.

From inspiring young racers to follow their dream, opening people’s eyes to something as serious as Alzheimer ’s disease, or keeping all of his driver colleagues safe, Dan Wheldon was the perfect mold for a fan, friend, teammate or onlooker to follow. Being from England never slowed him down while he shot for his American Dream. Wheldon set out on that dream wanting to race here, win here, and be a role model here.

And even once he accomplished the dream, he never looked back.

Much like in racing, Wheldon stood on the gas pedal, blocked out the rear-view mirror, and went as hard as he could, right to the finish line.

That’s what I will always remember.

As we prep for this year’s Indianapolis 500 Pole Day, set to roll tomorrow, take a moment and reflect on where we are now in the sport of IndyCar. Much of it is due to Wheldon’s tireless efforts. Because of him, we can celebrate the 99th pole winner in 500 history tomorrow and prep for yet another bottle of milk to be cracked and enjoyed in Victory Lane next Sunday.

For that, we should all be eternally grateful.

We miss you Dan.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

Comments 1

  1. Yes, Dan Wheldon loved IMS so much he attended the NASCAR Brickyard race not too long before his death. I saw him standing in the pavilion area of the brickyard smiling & greeting fans so graciously that day. I will always regret not going over & saying hello to him, but I will always treasure the memory of his most gracious manner & his infectious smile!

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