Dan Wheldon an obituary

Dan Wheldon grew up karting alongside the likes of Jenson Button in the UK before deviating off the typical British driver’s career path to become a true star of the premier American racing formula. Wheldon, who was born in the tiny hamlet of Emberton in Buckinghamshire emigrated to the USA in 1999 in order to secure investment for his career.

Wheldon won the American Formula two series at the first attempt in 2000 before finishing second in the IndyLights feeder series in 2001. After completing the final two races of the 2002 IndyCar season for Panther racing Wheldon moved to Andretti Green Racing filling the driver of the owner and American motorsport legend Michael Andretti. The season saw Wheldon pick up his first podium, in the final race at the Texas Motor Speedway, and the coveted rookie of the year prize for his season long performance. Wheldon secured his first victory in the series, a victory at the Motegi Speedway where he’d debuted the previous year. Victories at the Richmond and Nazareth speedways and consistent podium finishes saw Wheldon finish runner-up to Tony Kanaan in only his second season.

The order was reversed by 2005 when Wheldon won the series title from teammate Tony Kanaan after winning a record breaking six races including his first Indy500 crown. Wheldon became the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Indy500 and the first Britain since Nigel Mansell in 1993 to secure a US Champ Car series title. Wheldon’s remarkable season concluded when he won the 2006 24 hours of Daytona in January.

Wheldon moved from Andretti Green to rival Chip Ginassi Racing as he looked to defend his title. The opening round of the 2006 IndyCar series was tinged with tragedy as Wheldon’s win was overshadowed by the death of rookie Paul Dana who died when his car contacted the infield catch-fencing cockpit first. The crash, which bears a striking resemblance to his own accident left Wheldon in tears post-race. He stated to cameras: ‘It was a very difficult day, and difficult to race under conditions like that. Racing is what I love. It’s my job to race and I love my job [but] it can be pretty vicious at times.’

Wheldon wouldn’t win another race in 2006 until the final round at the Chicago speedway. Wheldon led for 148 off the 200 laps at the Indy500 before a late puncture and pitstop left him fourth. He finished level on points with Sam Hornish Jr. but lost his title as a result of Hornish’s superior number of wins. Wheldon was offered a test drive at the BMW Sauber team but declined as he couldn’t be guaranteed a race seat. Eventually the seat was filled by Robert Kubica who took over Jacques Villeneuve’s drive mid-season.

Despite 10 podiums including four wins in the next two seasons Wheldon was dropped by Chip Ginassi racing at the end of 2008 where he was replaced by former teammate and fellow Brit Dario Franchetti. He moved to the Panther Racing Team in 2009 where Wheldon continued his impressive Indy500 run, finishing second in his two years with the team. However, success outside of the Bricklane was limited, Wheldon picked up just two other podium finishes before being replaced by JR Hildebrand for 2011.

Wheldon was left without a drive for the 2011 season though due to offers from Brian Hertha Autorsport and Sam Schmidt Motorsport he was able to compete in his final three races. His 2011 Indy500 victory came as a result of being in the right place at the right time. JR Hildebrand, the man who had replaced him at Panther Racing, crashed on the final came. Wheldon crossed the line to take the victory having only led the final lap. When IndyCar president Randy Bernard offered $5,000,000 prize to any non-regular driver to win from the back of the grid Wheldon was the only driver to accept. It was his in-car radio the network’s chose to tap as the ‘in-race reporter’ and his car that was being watched the closest heading into Sunday’s race. In his home town of Emberton, one man spoke of an air of expectation following Wheldon’s Indy500 heroics. Unfortunately this time, Wheldon, a man who had been a beneficiary of circumstances would face the dangerous realities of the sport. Having passed several cars he was caught up in a midfield accident and hurled into the catch-fencing cockpit first. Despite rapid response teams airlifting him to hospital Wheldon was pronounced dead two hours later, as a consequence of blunt trauma to the head.

When I reflect on Wheldon’s life, one moment steps out for me in the aftermath of the 2011 Indy500. Watching the race I’d been drawn into Hildebrand’s story as he looked certain to become the first rookie since 2001 to win at the bricklane and the first ‘true’ rookie since Graham Hill’s 1966 victory. When he crashed I let out a loud “NO!” when he slammed into the outer wall on the last corner handing Wheldon the win. It was in the aftermath however, that the true Dan Wheldon emerged. He tearfully dedicated the win to the Alzheimer’s society he had been a patron for since his mother was diagnosed with the disease before commiserating with Hildebrand.

This was the measure of the man. Wheldon had previously given his entire winnings from the 2008 Iowa 250 to the victims of flooding and tornados that had torn through the area and he’d planned to give half of his Vegas winnings to charity as well. Aside from his philanthropy Wheldon was a family man. He always involved his wife Susie and their sons, two year old Sebastian and seven month Oliver, in every race weekend. After Wheldon and his wife Susie posed for photos after having ‘his and hers’ tattoos prior to this weekends race he entered into conversation with skateboarding organiser Mark Waters. Wheldon who was apprehensive about the tattoo was asked by Waters: “If you can drive a car 200 miles per hour, how can you be afraid of getting a tattoo?” Wheldon replied: “I’ve seen what skateboarders do; that’s way more dangerous than what I do.”

Unfortunately for Wheldon, in less than 24 hours Wheldon would be dead and three other drivers including fellow Brit Pippa Mann would be hospitalised. This incident will undoubtedly lead to a full review. This is IndyCar’s ‘Senna moment’. Nobody expected a top driver like Wheldon to be killed, nobody thought it possible. A re-evaluation is already underway and I expect a number of positive changes to come from this terrible loss to motorsport. 

On a personal note Dan Wheldon was a star who I followed throughout my teenage years. I supported him and Franchetti through every Indy500 and several other races besides. His passing has been one of the most surreal experiences of my life, the reality won’t settle in until he doesn’t reappear at the start of the 2012 season. The whole SportUpdatesUK would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of Dan. As a show of support we will post a number of messages that other stars have left for one of the sports greats.

Chip Ginassi
We’re all going to miss him. A little bit of everybody in IndyCar racing died today.”

Jenson Button
“Just woken up to the most horrific news… Dan Wheldon RIP. I have many good memories of racing with Dan in the 90s, a true fighter. We’ve lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy. I can’t begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time."

Mark Webber
Rest in Peace Dan. I remember our early days in the UK in 1995/96… Miss ya…”

Lewis Hamilton
"Dan was a racer I’d followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motorsport ladder in the UK. He was an extremely talented driver. As a British guy, who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration. This is a tragic loss at such a young age. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time."

Rubens Barrichello
“Will always remember the great times we had at karting in Brazil my friend. Rest in peace”

Dario Franchetti
“He was six years old when I first met him. He was this little kid and the next thing you know he was my team-mate. We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships and today it doesn’t matter."

Danica Patrick
“There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for Suzi and the kids that God will give them strength.”

James Hinchcliffe
“It’s a black day for the sport. We came in here hoping for a good season finale and ended up losing a close friend and a very good racing driver.”

Drivers’ 5 lap salute to Dan Wheldon

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