David Malsher pays tribute to the charismatic IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner who died five years ago.
Writers Andy Hallbery and Jeff Olson owe their peers an apology. So comprehensive was their book of tributes and memories – Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon – that on Dan's fifth anniversary, there seems little left to add.
The fact that some of the proceeds from the book go to the Alzheimer’s Association makes it all the more worthy purchase. This merciless disease struck Dan’s mother, and the raw emotion he expressed in the aftermath of his second Indy 500 victory made the success even more gratifying. I’d urge all IndyCar fans to purchase the book.
So all that’s left is to try and explain – slightly indulgently, perhaps – what Dan Wheldon meant to someone outside his circle of friends but who was (maybe) on the fringes of his trusted journalists.
Friday 14 October, 2011, started out as a wonderful day to be at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A cloudless sky. Sunshine beating off the white walls that surround the track. F-22 Raptors circling on exercise from Nellis Air Force Base. The red and rugged mountains of Nevada as the gorgeous backdrop.
Not for the first time, I was struck by the fact that finding the glitz overload of Las Vegas in the middle of all this beauty is like discovering a disco glitter-ball hanging from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And talking of incongruities, the previous night, we had seen 34 IndyCars driving along the Vegas Strip! IndyCar’s CEO at the time, Randy Bernard, had somehow weaved magic and had a portion of the Strip shut down, so the drivers could display a small sample of their cars’ potency to whoever was interested. Whether it was of interest or irritation to the Vegas regulars, the cars had created an audio and visual spectacular. Seeing them back in their natural habitat the next day, it almost felt like the previous night hadn’t happened.
Aside from a long sitdown interview with Marco Andretti that morning, the huge jumble of mental snapshots I have from that weekend contain few positives. But there was one.
Strolling among the car transporters in the paddock, I noticed a group of fans around the Schmidt Peterson Motorsport trailer and I diverted my course to investigate. Emerging from the hubbub was one very distinctive British accent.
“Alright, Goose?!” An arm sheathed in a white firesuit thrust out from the throng and suddenly I was clasping hands with the reigning Indy 500 champion, the man with the most winsome cheeky-kid grin in the whole of racing. I don’t recall how I responded but it would have been brief and inconsequential; I had no desire to distract him. This was Dan in his element – keeping the fans happy. And no one did it better.
It would prove to be my last face-to-face encounter with Daniel Clive Wheldon. I wish there had been more.
I wish there had been more beforehand, too. I had seen Dan in action at Snetterton Circuit in the UK in the summer of 1998, and watched him beat Jenson Button, Nicolas Kiesa and Marcos Ambrose to victory in a Formula Ford race. But I was there purely for fun, rather than as a reporter, so never got to meet him.
When Dan came to America the very next year, I kept track of his progress, simply because in those days it was still quite unusual for a 20-year-old from the other side of the Atlantic to choose a U.S. junior series so early on in their career. By the time most Britons or Europeans gave up on the Formula 1 dream and rushed to the arms of Uncle Sam, they had usually had the same effect on their parents’ savings accounts as a locust swarm has on a crop. But Wheldon dived into the world of USF2000, and emerged with six victories from 14 races, and the title.
In 2000, in the Atlantic Championship, he finished runner-up; in ’01 he was second again, this time in Indy Lights. And in 2002 he spent most of the year beating on the doors of Indy Racing League teams, before Panther Racing opened up, and he made his first IndyCar starts in the final two events of the season. For ’03, Dan had a full-time ride with Andretti Green Racing, in ’04 he scored his first three wins, and in ’05 he had it all – victory in the Indianapolis 500, and the IRL IndyCar championship.
I was a reporter on the other side of the U.S. open-wheel divide, the Champ Car World Series, and therefore only watched Dan’s IRL successes from afar. But that winter, when Autosport needed an interview with the first British Indy car champion since Nigel Mansell 12 years earlier, and first British ‘500’ winner since Graham Hill 39 years earlier, I jumped at the chance.
It remains one of the most memorable interviews I have ever conducted. Dan was in sharp and sparkling form – as I later learned was his natural default setting. But what impressed me most was that the hard-edged attitude of a racer shone from his very core. All the true aces have that iron will; what was startling about this guy, who had signed up for Chip Ganassi Racing the following year, was that he made no attempt to hide the scale of his ambition. I left the interview convinced that I had just spoken with a guy who would retain ‘500’ and Series crowns.
I wasn’t quite right, but damn, he gave it a good go. That #10 Ganassi car led three-quarters of the 2006 Indy 500, only getting wrong-footed by the way the cautions fell in the closing stages. And he ended the season actually tied on points with the champion, Sam Hornish Jr., missing out on the crown because of fewer wins than the Penske driver.
The next two seasons at Ganassi brought four wins, and two fourth places in the championship. Yet this road course ace in his junior days had evolved very much into an oval specialist and in a series with an increasing number of road and street courses, that was always going to limit his potential. Affronted that Chip Ganassi had held talks with Tony Kanaan, Dan left the team at the end of 2008 and joined Panther Racing.
And at the most difficult oval for the ‘old’ Dallara, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wheldon remained awesome. He finished as runner-up in both ’09 and ’10, each time starting from 18th on the grid. That encapsulated his maturing process. His work throughout practice had been focused on race setup, because experience had taught him that qualifying sessions for a 500-mile race were largely irrelevant. And he had the utmost faith in his own ability; he knew he’d be heading toward the pointy end of the field come Memorial Day Weekend.
The split from Panther at the end of 2010 amazingly left Wheldon unemployed. With only eight races of the 2011 season to be held on ovals, his specialized skill wasn’t regarded as desirable, and it seems strange to reflect on the fact that no team owner thought of doing what Ed Carpenter does with his #20 car these days. The idea of employing a half-decent road/street course driver for half the season would surely be more than compensated for by having Wheldon in the car for the ovals, in particular the 500…
In the end, it was one of his former Andretti Green teammates, Bryan Herta, who saw the light. Despite running a team with precisely one IndyCar start under its wheels – the previous 500 – and despite having only one race entry confirmed for 2011 – the next Indy 500 – Bryan was able to persuade his buddy to sign up. The deal was announced at the IndyCar season-opener in Dan’s home town of St. Petersburg, Fla. Truth be told, we all thought, ‘That’s a cool story,’ but I bet few thought, ‘There’s the winning combo right there.’ Except Dan did. And his ambition and optimism pervaded the little team throughout the Month of May.
In the run-up to the ‘500’, I interviewed Dan at length for another website, and again, he was absolutely captivating. In my experience, no other racer besides Al Unser Jr. has ever conveyed so passionately the fact that they were bewitched by Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And no one other than Rick Mears and Dario Franchitti has more eloquently explained the techniques and demands of IMS. Dan left me feeling that I could have driven it myself.
But of course no one in his era could drive the Indy 500 like Dan. Neither Herta nor car co-owner Sam Schmidt should take it ill when I say that I’m not convinced any other driver could have helped the team hone that #98 William Rast/Curb Agajanian-backed machine to such a competitive pitch whereby he qualified on the second row, and was in position to pounce on the final lap of the race when JR Hildebrand struck the wall.
The emotion of the guy was understandable. Find the video and listen to his onboard radio. His devotion to wife Susie and the children is plain to hear, and the love for his family in the UK was and remains terribly moving. Those pictures you’ll find of the traditional Monday morning “on the yard of bricks” photoshoot are wonderful and permanent reminders of another beautiful day.
A separate photoshoot had been organized by my then boss, Laurence Foster, and on the afternoon before Carb Day, this had entailed the pair of us going to a local building supply company and transporting two laundry trolleys of bricks to the second floor of the Media Center. There we placed a plastic chair in a room and started stacking God-knows-how-many bricks around it in the form of a throne, for whoever would turn out to be Sunday’s King of the Brickyard.
At exactly the appointed hour early on Monday, Dan showed up. No hangover. Not stinking of sour milk from yesterday’s celebration. He was witty and charming, his firesuit was pristine and, after giggling at our construction, admitted he loved it and fully played along with the concept. I doubt that photographer Mike Levitt has ever had a more co-operative driver, nor one whose smile was more brilliant – and permanent!
Throughout the summer, Wheldon was testing the next-gen IndyCar on behalf of its designer Tony Cotman, Dallara, and the series. He was also proving to be an absolute natural as a commentator for the IndyCar races – insightful, quick-witted and completely at ease in interacting with his colleagues. Thinking back on it five years later, it’s funny to realize that the anointed one, the poster child of the IndyCar paddock, wasn’t even a full-time driver.
As a contributor to the official program for the Las Vegas season finale, I flew to the penultimate race in Kentucky, ostensibly to organize the front cover photoshoot with the cars of championship contenders Dario Franchitti and Will Power, and to interview Dan. He was using the Kentucky race as a ‘dry run’ for Vegas, where he and the Herta/Schmidt team were to campaign the #77 car and attempt to capture IndyCar’s biggest ever payout. The reigning Indy 500 champion was to start from the back of the 2x2 34-car grid for this final race with the old IRL Dallaras, and were he to end up in Victory Lane, he would earn $5m, to split equally with one extremely lucky fan.
Dressed in a firesuit so form-hugging that he was only just the right side of public indecency laws, and despite Kentucky that weekend being struck by a windchill factor that would have made a polar bear seek shelter, during the interview Wheldon was a source of friendly warmth while displaying his usual stone cold determination. If anyone was capable of driving from last to first in Vegas, it was him.
Naturally, the $5m jackpot drew a fair amount of interest, as Randy Bernard had intended, and in the build-up to the Vegas race, Dan received as much media attention as title contenders Power and Franchitti. The trio also appeared on stage in one of the hotels downtown, with Dan reprising his commentator role by interviewing the other two. He was brilliant… but let’s face it, you could have put him in a room with all his peers and guaranteed that Dan would be the most immediately engaging. The guy just seemed to blend cool with passion.
And Fate decreed he will remain that way in our memories. This is not the time or place to lay out everything I saw, heard or thought at Vegas on 16 October, 2011, nor to analyze why the accident happened. But while writing a 4000-word version of this story purely as a cathartic exercise, I recalled more than I wished to. Standing on pitlane, watching the monitors, and on Lap 11 hearing huge intakes of breath from some of those around me, yelps and howls from others.
The 15-car accident unfolded in a dreadful series of skids, crashes, flames, launches, and flips, and I distinctly remembered it seemed to last for ages. Then suddenly there were car carcasses smoldering on either side of the track and pieces of debris, large and small, scattered far and wide…
I’m sure everyone there will remember the circumstances in which they learned that Dan had perished. Others were less fortunate than I, that’s for damn certain. The person who informed me probably wishes to remain anonymous, but I know I’ll be forever grateful to her. She simply stopped in my path, and with the kindest, most sympathetic face I can ever recall seeing, looked up at me and said: “I’m so sorry. Dan didn’t make it.”
The unutterable grief felt by the American family who lost a beloved husband and devoted father, and the English family who lost a wonderful son and brother, cannot be quantified. Nor can the shock and despair felt by his closest friends. As is always the case, those who are a bit more distant from the fallen victim have the luxury of sooner moving into the mode of ‘celebration of a great life.’
I wasn’t ready to do that on the four-hour drive home that night, from Vegas to Southern California, but then my job forced me to do so the next day. Tributes needed to be written and compiled.
And five years on? Yeah, I consider it an honor to have entered the wonderful world of Wheldon, even just sporadically. Sixteen wins, including two Indy 500 victories, don’t quite encapsulate how Dan’s bravery and really exceptional judgment came to epitomize IRL-style oval racing. He was absolutely one of the finest exponents of the art.
But I think there were two qualities that defined Dan outside of the racecar. One was his boundless optimism and enthusiasm, which spread not only to those in his immediate circle of family, friends and colleagues but which also transmitted to fans at the track and all around the world. He was extra exuberant that weekend in Vegas because (a) he relished the challenge ahead, and (b) he had signed with Michael Andretti for a full-time return to Andretti Autosport the following year. But in truth, even had he just been attending the race as a commentator and had no deals in place for 2012, I doubt many of us would have detected a difference in his demeanor. Whatever the circumstances, Dan Wheldon proved that the phrase ‘a zest for life’ is more than just a cliché.
The second thing I’ll remember about Dan The Man was his star quality. I’m convinced he would have been a huge success at anything he turned his hand to – and that boded so well for his future. Returning to Andretti was a wonderful opportunity for his IndyCar career to reach more summits; he was just 33, after all. But even beyond that, his potential seemed limitless. Dan was so incredibly determined and mentally sharp, none of us would have been surprised by anything he achieved in his post-racing career.
I sometimes like to wonder what that future would have entailed… but then I catch myself feeling sad again. The morning of Monday 17 October, 2011,looked as beautiful as the four or five that had immediately preceded it. But of course it wasn’t: The outstanding dude with the cheeky-kid grin wasn’t around to see it.