Wheldon Ready To Roar With Panther
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Dan Wheldon is a loves-challenges kind of guy. Big challenges. Tough challenges. Some would say foolish challenges. Some may say that the one that he has taken on this year may fit into all those categories.
Not Wheldon, though. He says there are only good challenges and that his current one is really good.
Wheldon broke into the IndyCar Series as a full-time driver in 2003. He broke in full time with the high-profile, high-dollar Andretti Green Racing super team and when the season ended, he was named Bombardier Rookie of the Year.
The next season, he finished second in points, 85 behind teammate Tony Kanaan. He won three races. And in 2005, Wheldon won the IndyCar championship and the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.
So, in Wheldon-think, it was time for a new challenge. So, he signed to drive with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In three years with Ganassi, Wheldon won six races and established himself as one of the series’ top drivers and stars.
So, of course, it was time for a new challenge.
This season, Wheldon returns as the driver for Panther Racing.
Panther is one of the storied teams in the series. It is owned by a collection of people who know what oil and grease taste like and kind of live for that taste.
In 2001 and 2002, the team won IndyCar championships with Sam Hornish Jr. doing the driving. But in the seasons since, other teams have grown to two, three and four cars. Panther dabbled in multi-car efforts but last season decided one car and driver was the more efficient way to go.
That is, Panther became Wheldon’s kind of operation. So he moved on in.
“It’s always good to challenge yourself,” Wheldon, still toning his words with the kind of accent which natives of Emberton, England all probably possess, said during a break in testing at Kansas Speedway this week. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve won a lot of races in IndyCar, I’ve won the championship, I’ve won the 500. It’s important to keep challenging yourself.”
He starts to drool at the thought of having a team reconstruct itself around him.
“I think to some degree, when I moved to Chip Ganassi Racing from Andretti Green, everybody said the same thing because they hadn’t won many races and Andretti Green had dominated. But times change and I feel personally that you’ve got to move where you think the most competitive environment is going to be.”
Wheldon made and announced his decision in September of 2008.
For Wheldon, the move to Panther is a move back to Panther. He began his career there as a test driver and then drove in two races in ’02.
Team owner John Barnes couldn’t wait to put Wheldon back into his car this year.
“It’s hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us,” Barnes said. “I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent. Since then he’s become one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world, and for him to make his return to our team at the height of his racing career is a tremendous compliment to our team. I know he’s excited about getting into the No. 4 car for the first time and we’ve got a tremendous future ahead of us. He’s definitely our franchise quarterback. Dan’s a guy that wants his hands on the ball with four seconds left and 10 yards to go. He knows how to get the ball across the goal line.”
Wheldon knows that Panther is not mega on the grand scale, but insists the operation is anything but small.
“I don’t think it is a little team,” Wheldon said. “It’s got that reputation, and I think that sometimes people don’t see them as seriously as they should be because of that. But they have about 56 employees for a one-car team and when you consider that, it’s pretty big.”
And, it will be getting bigger, Wheldon said.
And, it will be getting better.
Wheldon is insisting on that.
“I’m certainly expecting a lot from the team,” he said.
Demanding a lot, actually.
The team has taken a few missteps this year. In the shops and on the tracks. Like at the Kansas test. The team was not ready to take to the track when testing began after a delay forced by cold weather.
Wheldon let his team know that wasted track time is unacceptable.
“In terms of development, I would like to see more (progress) and certainly leading into Indianapolis, I will be expecting a lot more from the team,” he said.
The guys at Panther responded at Kansas. By the time the day had ended, Wheldon was fastest in a test which included Danica Patrick of Andretti Green, and Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske.
Wheldon says it won’t be long before they start responding with victories.
Could be, as Wheldon ran near the front in the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. Last week. He was running second before late contact put him out of the race.
Next up is the Long Beach Grand Prix.2 Comments