Dario Franchitti remembers watching a 6-year-old Dan Wheldon drive a go-kart against Jenson Button. “I would have bet money right then that Dan would have been a World Champion, he was that good,'' recalls the four-time IndyCar Series champion.
Franchitti's prophecy kinda came true; Wheldon did become a champion, but it was on this side of The Pond. As Button went on to Formula 1 fame, Wheldon opted for America, where he learned and mastered oval-track racing – specifically, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and earned a place in the history books. Two wins, two seconds, a third and a fourth in nine starts puts Danny Boy in some elite company at 16th and Georgetown.
“Dan loved Indy, and he lived for the Month of May,” says Franchitti, himself a two-time Indy 500 winner who teamed with Wheldon from 2003-'05 at Andretti Green Racing. “He just had that feeling for the place, and obviously it showed.”
The fact an accomplished road racer from England blossomed into a fearless force at turning left in the USA is, frankly, one of those things that makes motorsports so intriguing. Following a USF2000 title and runner-up positions in the Toyota Atlantic and Indy Lights championships, Wheldon looked primed for a seat in the CART series. Instead, he got a job as a test driver with Panther Racing in what was then the all-oval Indy Racing League in 2002.
“The first time we tested him you could see he was driven to be successful and he was quick,” says Andy Brown, who engineered Sam Hornish to two IRL crowns with Panther. “We just weren't able to put a package together and keep him.”
Instead, Andretti Green Racing snapped him up and he immediately opened eyes in May of 2003.
“At one of the first practice days, Dan ran 230mph and we were on top of the speed chart,” recalls Keith Badger, who was crew chief for this startling new rookie that month. “Our engineer asked, ‘What should we do?' and I said, ‘Put it in the garage and go home.' We've got a real racer.”
After qualifying seventh, Wheldon crashed late in the race but it would be the last time those IMS walls would get the best of him. As the new kid in the AGR stable, he had to take the brunt of practical jokes from veteran teammates Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan and Franchitti but he quickly gained their respect in 2004.
“Dan drove with more commitment than anybody I knew,” states Herta. “He was super committed all the time.''
As former CART drivers, Franchitti, Herta and Kanaan were all better at racing road and street courses than tackling the oval tracks, and so they soon found this precocious young sophomore was schooling them through much of the '04 season.
Says Franchitti: “Dan had this uncanny ability to drive the car loose and he kept freeing up the rear of the thing. We kept telling him: ‘You can't do that!' But he drove on the edge all the time and it took me five years to do that on ovals. But he had such a confidence about him on ovals and he loved them.”
Wheldon's wins at Motegi, Richmond and Nazareth proved that. He'd finish second to Kanaan in 2004's point standings.
“Dan was also a very smart boy,” Franchitti continues. “I remember we went testing at Nazareth and he was terrible so he asked me what I was doing, where I was braking and where I was picking up the throttle. We came back and he won the bloody race! You only had to tell him once.”