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Sturbin: Mature Wheldon Had Found Happiness

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 18 2011

Dan Wheldon in the pits and in the cockpit of the winning car at the 2011 Indianapolis 500. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – As so often happens during a group interview, there was a question I really wanted to ask Dan Wheldon one-on-one before we ran out of time.

This was on Tuesday, May 31, two days after Wheldon’s improbable victory in the 100th anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500. Barely 48 hours after rolling around on his back next to the famed “Yard of Bricks” in celebration at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wheldon was in downtown Cowtown to help promote the IZOD IndyCar Series’ inaugural Firestone Twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway.

In another of TMS president Eddie Gossage’s signature media ops, Wheldon arrived at Rick’s Sports Bar aboard a milk truck. After clanking glasses of milk in another victory toast with Gossage and breezing through a series of TV interviews, Wheldon was warmly greeted by the lunchtime crowd inside.

And Dan had plenty to talk about. The previous evening in Indianapolis, he had received a check for $2.56-million from a purse of $13.5-million.

“That’s definitely my biggest unemployment check so far,” Wheldon joked, noting his contract with Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian had expired at midnight on May 29. Gossage, eager to have Wheldon competing in the popular night race 11 days away, offered the Brit $160 to run here. Back in his IndyCar championship heyday in 2005, that hardly would have paid for another pair of shoes in a collection that had become one of Wheldon’s self-confessed obsessions.

“I broke a record for myself,” said Wheldon, whose No. 98 Dallara/Honda had been sponsored in part

Mari Hulman-George, Dan Wheldon and Tony George at the post-race banquet at Indy this year.

at Indy by the William Rast fashion line. “I had a different pair, and a new pair, of jeans on every day of the month that I was at Indy. So I need a bigger closet now.”

In retrospect, there was almost no chance Wheldon was going to compete at TMS in a race Herta had not budgeted for his fledgling team. Shortly after Wheldon had won his second Indy 500 – when rookie JR Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall on the 200th and final lap – Herta began working on a deal to become INDYCAR’s primary test team for the series’ new 2012 chassis/engine platform. The driver would be Wheldon, a superb tester who helped Honda develop its IndyCar V-8 beginning in 2002.

“As a driver, I knew it (Indy) was going to be potentially my one-and-only race,” said Wheldon, who died Sunday in a horrific multi-car crash during the season-ending Las Vegas Indy 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. ”I won the Indianapolis 500. That, for me, is a huge accomplishment. I value that race so much, particularly this year. I was not demanding, but I think it was one of the mechanics or engineers that said it best. After two or three days of being at the Speedway they said, ‘We appreciate you raising the bar from a professionalism standpoint and raising the goal.’ I was pretty gung-ho on making sure that we were contenders. And that needed to be the case.”

Wheldon’s attention to detail – his OCD idiosyncrasies – made him an easy mark at Andretti Green Racing. Recall Wheldon was the driver who replaced team co-owner and former CART champion Michael Andretti after he retired from fulltime competition.

Wheldon won his first Indy 500 in 2005 for AGR, where his teammates were Dario Franchitti, Tony

Dan Wheldon gets a pie in the face from teammates Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta after winning his first Indy 500.

Kanaan and Herta. As the youngest/single team member, Wheldon was subjected to a year’s-worth of hazing from open-wheel racing’s version of The Beatles.

“Somebody said, ‘What’s the biggest difference between you winning in 2005 and 2011?’ ” Wheldon said during a Q&A with fans. “And I said, ‘I could remember the Sunday night in 2011.’ I couldn’t remember in 2005. I was sponsored by Jim Beam and I’m sure it was a good time. But I couldn’t tell you anything about it because I can’t remember. I was a little crazy. I was enjoying life to the maximum. Maybe I’m getting older.”

Wheldon didn’t turn 33 until June 22, but it was apparent he had matured since that whirlwind ’05 season. And let’s not forget the impromptu sake party Dan organized for Danica Patrick on the long plane flight home from Japan to the USA following her historic victory at Twin Ring Motegi in April 2008.

Wheldon had since gotten married; he and wife, Susie, had become the parents of sons Sebastian Daniel and Oliver James. “I’m probably more happy now than I’ve ever been in my life,” Wheldon said. “It’s just very different; it’s almost an opposite to what it was back then.”

Indeed, Wheldon had become a doting father, as evidenced by this anecdote. “You know, there’s so many rich traditions at the Speedway,” Wheldon said. “The morning after the race you take photos and stuff like that. It was very important for me to take photos with my wife and two boys. My oldest boy, Sebastian, is just over 2 now. It was funny – and this wasn’t practiced, this was just totally natural – he walked right up to the Bricks and kissed them.

“So I’m sure I’m going to be spending thousands of dollars on him for him to get his go-kart career

Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon when they were teammates at Andretti Green.

started. He’s a natural. He’s got one tradition down already. I’m just hoping that he gets the one of drinking the milk down. I’m sure that looking at him, he’s going to be a lot more talented than his dad. So if he can win more than two, which I’m sure he will, I’ll be extremely proud.”

It also was apparent that day the loss of his fulltime ride had prompted Wheldon to re-examine his attitude. After a two-race debut with Panther Racing in 2002, Wheldon had logged full-season stints with AGR (2003-05), Target Chip Ganassi Racing (2006-08) and Panther (2009-10). His performance reviews likely included notations ranging from “Needs Improvement” to “Cheeky” to “&%$#* Smartass.”

“I’ve been in Indycars for a long time now,” Wheldon said, “and I think you get to the point – and maybe it’s because I’m starting to get a little bit older now – you take stuff for granted. Because truly, I’ve been doing this since I’ve been 4-years-old. When I say it’s a way of life, I think racing has created a personality. And people who know me well know I’m not quite the same without it.

“I think this is my ninth Indianapolis 500, so in effect, I’ve done eight full seasons. You know, you just take it for granted. It’s just, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s supposed to be there and it will always be there.’ And when it’s not you then learn to appreciate everything about it.

“If the team were asking me to do this and do that perhaps in the past you’re like, ‘Well, do I have to?’ And now you’re, ‘Oh yeah, no problem!’ It’s one of those things…it’s not that I was a spoiled brat or anything by any stretch because I think I’m very gracious as a person at the track and away from the track. But it’s just, I think, natural. You need those reality checks sometimes and it really did make me appreciate everything, how much I love driving the cars. That aspect of it was…phenomenal.”

There are some recent ironies in Wheldon’s IndyCar racing life that stand out. First, he won the Indy

The scoring pylon displays just one number – Dan Wheldon's – at Las Vegas after Sunday's tragedy.

500 in May when Hildebrand – the driver who replaced him at Panther Racing after a less-than-amicable split with team bossman John Barnes – famously crashed in Turn 4 of that final lap.

And while Wheldon spoke glowingly of Herta as friend and confidant during his Indy 500 experience and throughout testing of the new package this summer, Dan reportedly was headed back to Andretti Autosport for a fulltime ride in 2012. Wheldon was to replace NASCAR-bound Patrick, who stole much of the media thunder from him at Indy in 2005 with her historic 19 laps-led and fourth-place finish. That was the launch of Danicamania, which Wheldon cleverly countered at TMS by wearing a t-shirt that declared: “I actually won the Indy 500.”

Wheldon’s 2012 deal with Mikey, now sole-owner of the rebadged organization, was to have been announced after Sunday’s ill-fated race. Dan thoroughly would have enjoyed returning to IMS in May as defending champion of the world’s greatest auto race, in the new/safer package he basically developed.

“The Indy 500 is such an enthralling event,” Wheldon said. “Everything about it makes you want it again. Hopefully this is going to continue. But I’m obviously very gracious and proud to be a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion. I love it. It really is very special to me, particularly the 100th anniversary.

“But yeah, I feel like I’ve achieved a lot in my racing. When you kind of set your goals, you want to win

Mourning fans arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just hours after Dan Wheldon's death on Sunday.

all the blue-ribbon races. I mean, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve won the Rolex Daytona 24-Hour race, I’ve won the IndyCar Series championship, the Indianapolis 500, my home race in St. Petersburg, (Fla.), I won Motegi for the first time for Honda – there’s a lot of great races that I’ve won. So it continues, more and more and more.”

Now, about that one-on-one question. Early in his remarks to the fans, Wheldon said he had been honored to serve as spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s affected my family,” said Wheldon, referring to his mother, Sue, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her mid-50s. “It affects a lot of people out there. Anybody out there suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, my thoughts and prayers are with you. It affects way more people than people know, certainly, as we live longer and longer.”

My 85-year-old mom, Stella, was diagnosed with early symptoms of the degenerative disease that affects the memory this spring, and I really wanted to follow-up and briefly trade notes with Dan.

Sadly, and forever, we ran out of time.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 18 2011
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Ganesh Prasanna says:

    Well written John. As someone who follows IRL and other racing only occasionally, your touching story on Dan Wheldon was eye-opening, personal and reflective of the man. Thanks!

  • Katie says:

    Great story, very well written. Dan truly was the People’s Champion and never will be forgotten. Thank you for writing a positive article reminding everybody what he was racing for, about the infectious humor and hijinks at Andretti-Green, and how much he loved the sport. I had the pleasure of meeting Dan a few times and you just couldn’t help but feel his love of what he did and of the fans who made it possible. Racing won’t be the same without Dan, but Dan would never have been the same without racing. Rest in peace buddy, we will miss you!

  • Rick says:

    Great job on this story Sturb.