Wheldon and Scott Dixon formed a dynamic duo
at Chip Ganassi Racing in ’06. Scott credits Dan
with schooling him in oval racing technique.
WHELDON, TV GURU
As a broadcaster, Dan
was simply brilliant
The thought of Dan Wheldon
and I working on TV
But then came this eight-month
cold war prior to his press conference
in St. Petersburg this year, when he
announced he’d be running Indy for
pal Bryan Herta. Afterward, we did an
interview for SPEED, shook hands
and I wished him well for May.
By the time we got to Texas in
June, he was a two-time Indy 500
winner and the newest member of
the Versus broadcast team (BELOW).
In one of our production meetings,
he’d suggested that I do a grid walk
before the race like Peter Windsor
made famous in F1. Then he
volunteered to do it with me.
The result was pretty entertaining,
according to the people who watched,
as the cheeky Indy star and the old
curmudgeon ambushed drivers and
owners on pit road. “Hey RM,” he
yelled that first night, “this is fun!”
And, of course, Danny Boy’s
three-race stint in the booth was
outstanding as his personality, passion,
humor and expertise made him the
best analyst since Bobby Unser. And he
also learned the power of television.
“Man! You say one little thing on
TV and people get all bent out of
shape,” he confided.
I started laughing. “You mean like
you and I last year?”
Dan grinned and replied: “I don’t
know what you’re talking about…”
speed chart,” recalls Keith Badger, who was crew chief for this
startling new rookie that month. “Our engineer asked, ‘ What
should we do?’ and I said, ‘Put it in the garage and go home.’
We’ve got a real racer.”
After qualifying seventh, Wheldon crashed late in the race but
it would be the last time those IMS walls would get the best of
him. As the new kid in the AGR stable, he had to take the brunt of
practical jokes from veteran teammates Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan
and Franchitti but he quickly gained their respect in 2004.
“Dan drove with more commitment than anybody I knew,”
states Herta. “He was super committed all the time.”
As former CART drivers, Franchitti, Herta and Kanaan were
all better at racing road and street courses than tackling the oval
tracks, and so they soon found this precocious young sophomore
was schooling them through much of the ’04 season.
Says Franchitti: “Dan had this uncanny ability to drive the
car loose and he kept freeing up the rear of the thing. We kept
telling him: ‘ You can’t do that!’ But he drove on the edge all the
time and it took me five years to do that on ovals. But he had
such a confidence about him on ovals and he loved them.”
Wheldon’s wins at Motegi, Richmond and Nazareth proved
that. He’d finish second to Kanaan in 2004’s point standings.
“Dan was also a very smart boy,” Franchitti continues. “I
remember we went testing at Nazareth and he was terrible so he
asked me what I was doing, where I was braking and where I was
picking up the throttle. We came back and he won the bloody
race! You only had to tell him once.”
It all came right in 2005 when
Wheldon won six of the 17 races and led
752 laps on his way to capturing the IRL
championship. And one of those wins
came at his beloved Indianapolis, where
he came from 16th on the grid.