Dan Wheldon, who succumbed to injuries suffered in a multi-car crash at the IZOD IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas
Motor Speedway, was born in England, but made in America.
His two victories on the biggest stage of all, the Indianapolis
500, are the pinnacles of a career that puts him up there with
the great and the good of the Brickyard, yet leaves us
wondering how much more he might have achieved.
Hailing from the sleepy village of Emberton, just a few miles
from the Silverstone Formula 1 racetrack, Wheldon began
karting as a small child, taking his first steps in a sport that was
a family passion: his dad raced karts as an amateur, and his
mother was timekeeper at the local track. At the age of 12, in
1990, he claimed his third successive British Cadet Karting
Championship. He then moved up to claim a British Junior title,
before becoming FIA Formula A World Cup champion in ’95.
Wheldon was in hot demand from junior-level race teams in
the UK. He battled for the Formula Vauxhall Junior title in
1996, won races in his rookie Formula Ford season in ’97, and
was fully expected to attack the Ford crown in ’98 with the
works Van Diemen team. But then along came Jenson Button…
With Button claiming Ford glory and most of the headlines,
Wheldon had insufficient backing to move further up the ranks
in Europe. He set his sights on the USA for 1999, making his
first move to a country he would grow to love. The new boy
Nick Laham/Getty Images
from the “Old World” claimed the USF2000 title on his first
attempt and, in successive seasons, climbed the CART ladder by
claiming second in Toyota Atlantics and then Indy Lights.
He looked to Champ Car, but no opening came. Instead, he got
his chance in the IndyCar Series, joining Panther Racing for two
late-season races in 2002. In ’03, when a motorcycle crash sidelined
Dario Franchitti, Wheldon was called up by Andretti Green Racing.
When Franchitti recovered, Wheldon was retained because team
boss Michael Andretti had stood down from driving after Indy.
Wheldon’s reputation rapidly grew, and he showed an affinity
for ovals few would have expected of a European with a road racing
background. In 2004, he took his first win at Motegi; a year later,
he raced to the IndyCar title and victory in the Indy 500 – the first
Englishman to win the race since Graham Hill in 1966.
Incredibly, Wheldon would not defend his title with Andretti
Green. Instead, he switched to Chip Ganassi Racing. The
partnership started perfectly with a Rolex 24 at Daytona victory for
Wheldon in Ganassi’s Grand-Am Daytona Prototype. And the
IndyCar season was pretty good, too, Wheldon only being beaten to
the title by Sam Hornish Jr. on a tiebreaker of race wins.
Wheldon took fourth in the championship with Ganassi in 2007
and ’08, winning two races in each season to take his IndyCar
career tally to 15, but he was released at the end of the season.
The 2009 season brought a return to his roots at Panther.
Although he was now with one of the
“underdog teams,” Wheldon scored some
stout results, including consecutive
runner-up finishes at Indy, and placed in
the top 10 in points in 2009 and ’ 10. Despite
that, the relationship came to a close and
he was left without a full-time ride for ’ 11.
Instead of rushing into any offer that
came along, Wheldon put his sole focus
on Indy 500 glory with the team of his
friend, Bryan Herta, with whom he’d
lined up in his Andretti Green days. On
May 29 of this year, he took an emotional
second win in the “500” in his Bryan
Herta Autosport Dallara-Honda, ironically
thanks to Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand
drifting into the wall at the exit of the
final corner of the race. He was also
named as official development driver for
the new-generation Dallara IndyCar, with
Herta’s team running the program.
For the Las Vegas finale, Wheldon was
chosen to race for $5 million, which would
be split with a fan if he won from the back
of the field. He ran the Kentucky Speedway
race with Sam Schmidt Motorsports as a
warm-up, and was expected to be a realistic
threat in Vegas. Then came disaster.
Dan Wheldon was a man who
embodied the ideal of the immigrant
fulfilling the American Dream. Out of all
the European drivers to have made their
careers in the U.S., he seemed to most
fully embrace the American lifestyle.
Perhaps his affinity with the U.S. was
key to turning down an offer from the BMW
Sauber Formula 1 team to be its third driver
and understudy to Jacques Villeneuve and
Nick Heidfeld in 2006. As the reigning Indy
500 and IndyCar champ, why leave behind
what he regarded as the perfect way of life?
He married his personal assistant,
Susie, in 2008, and together they had two
sons, Sebastian (born 2009) and Oliver
(born March this year). It is to his family,
and his many, many friends in the world of
motorsports, that our thoughts now turn.
FOR MORE ON DAN WHELDON,
THE RACER, GO TO PAGE 24
(LEFT) Dan Wheldon’s first Indianapolis 500 win came in 2005. (FAR LEFT) Celebrating victory number two in 2011 with the oldest of his two boys, Sebastian.