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.”
It all came right in 2005 when Wheldon won six of the 17 races and led 752 laps on his way to capturing the IRL championship. And one of those wins came at his beloved Indianapolis, where he came from 16th on the grid.
In fact, the champion didn't win a pole position all season, but Herta says that's irrelevant. “It didn't matter where Dan qualified because he'd always attack when the race started,” he says. “He could also drive a car with less steering input than anybody else. Dan would allow the car to do the turning and so he could stay flat on the throttle longer.”
The perks of success at AGR landed him a deal in 2006 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where his oval tutoring continued, to the benefit of new teammate, Ganassi incumbent Scott Dixon.
“Those three years when we were teammates turned out to be a huge advantage for me because I learned from him how to run ovals,” says Dixon, who had already claimed the 2003 IndyCar title. “But I've got to say, at first it pissed me off to have this new guy come in, drive the car crazy loose and win! He won his very first race for Chip at Homestead and that got my attention. That season he'd keep telling me I had to loosen the car up to get through the corner and it finally clicked.”
Wheldon was reunited with Brown and together they won six times and led over 1,400 laps from 2006-'08.
Why did they click so well? Brown responds: “Dan had a precise feel for what the car was doing and he could fine tune a car to the nth degree on an oval. He made it easy to pinpoint a problem…and we both spoke ‘proper' English!”
Dixon had been teammates with Kenny Brack in his CART days so he was familiar with sticklers for detail but even so, Wheldon's methodology startled him. The Kiwi recalls with a chuckle: “I'd never seen a debrief like Dan's. It would go on for pages and pages, but surely there's only so much you can say about an oval! But he had such finesse and a feeling for those ovals and, like I say, he was always comfortable with the car handling loose. He had that crazy confidence you need on ovals, yet he could always envision or sense when it was too loose. He really was amazing.”
All his pals are quick to point out his bravado behind the wheel helped the cause and that his car control and aggression made his starting position moot. That's why he only had five pole positions but racked up 16 victories in his 134 IndyCar starts.
“It's pretty simple,” states Brown. “Dan was just relentless on race day and he'd wear people down and then get by them. He hated following people on ovals.”
Despite his prowess at turning left and despite his pre-IRL background, Wheldon struggled to be competitive on road courses and street circuits following the open-wheel merger in 2008.
“He could put a real fast lap down during a test but, for whatever reason, I don't think he ever clicked with the current car on road courses,” says Dixon.
So, after two winless years with Panther (albeit with two more runner-up finishes at Indy), Wheldon found himself without a full-time ride for 2011 and agreed to do a one-off at the Indy 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport, led by his old teammate and Steve Newey. It was only the second IndyCar race for the team, but it was now under the Sam Schmidt Motorsport umbrella.
Wheldon qualified fourth, lurked in the top six for the whole race and seized the moment coming to the checkered flag while his former team's car slid along the wall.
“Dan was amazing all month and he lifted everybody on this team up and made them better,” says Herta.
“C'mon!” says Dixon. “I like Bryan and those guys…but for that team to win the biggest race in the world? That was Dan.”
David Cripps, who engineered Wheldon for two years at Panther and had JR Hildebrand one corner away from winning Indy, sums up the career that ended way too early.
“Dan had a superb feel for the car, wasn't intimidated by speed, never gave up on a setup and always put in so much effort,” he says. “And we all know that at Indianapolis, you always see the cream rise to the top.”
Which is why two wins, two seconds, a third and a fourth at the Brickyard says a heck of a lot about Dan Wheldon, the racer.
Dan Wheldon, TV guru
As a broadcaster, Dan was simply brilliant
The thought of Dan Wheldon and I working on TV together would've seemed pretty remote at the end of 2010. He was mad at me for suggesting he'd become an “endangered species” in IndyCar, given that his road course performances couldn't match his oval-track prowess. Previous to that, we'd had a friendly relationship, since 2001, when I gave up my seat on a flight so he could sit next to his girlfriend. And Dan was always a good and willing interview.
But then came this eight-month cold war prior to his press conference in St. Petersburg this year, when he announced he'd be running Indy for pal Bryan Herta. Afterward, we did an interview for SPEED, shook hands and I wished him well for May.
By the time we got to Texas in June, he was a two-time Indy 500 winner and the newest member of the Versus broadcast team (BELOW). In one of our production meetings, he'd suggested that I do a grid walk before the race like Peter Windsor made famous in F1. Then he volunteered to do it with me.
The result was pretty entertaining, according to the people who watched, as the cheeky Indy star and the old curmudgeon ambushed drivers and owners on pit road. “Hey RM,” he yelled that first night, “this is fun!”
And, of course, Danny Boy's three-race stint in the booth was outstanding as his personality, passion, humor and expertise made him the best analyst since Bobby Unser. And he also learned the power of television.
“Man! You say one little thing on TV and people get all bent out of shape,” he confided.
I started laughing. “You mean like you and I last year?”
Dan grinned and replied: “I don't know what you're talking about…”
Dan the family man
Wheldon evolved into a lovable and loving guy
Bryan Herta's first impression of Dan Wheldon back in 2003 wasn't exactly endearing. “He was this brash, punk kid with a chip on his shoulder,” recalls Herta, who was one of the Four Musketeers at Andretti Green Racing along with Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti through the middle of the last decade.
The infamous raid on Dan's shoe collection in Japan (the boys packed up just one of each pair and sent them home) plus other practical jokes kept his three older teammates amused.
“The three of us ganged up on him and gave him an earful early on,” adds Franchitti with a laugh. “We thought that was pretty funny, but he didn't!”
Wheldon could be petulant and a little full of himself following his initial Indy 500 victory and no public relations person liked dealing with him…until Susie Behm. First she handled his PR for sponsor Jim Beam, then she became his personal publicist. In 2008, they were married.
“Dan was always a good person but he had that wild youth and then he settled down with Susie and everything changed,” says Herta. “He became a devoted husband and father of two boys and I have never seen him happier.”
Franchitti agrees. “At first Dan was brash and all that stuff, absolutely,” he says, “but he was also a charmer. A real charmer. And then he became this loving family guy who was still charming but he had this whole new side to him.”
And that unashamedly went on very public display following his dramatic win at Indy last May, as he picked up two-year-old son Sebastian, kissed baby Oliver and hugged Susie during a truly emotional Victory Lane celebration.
He'd matured as a race driver during the past decade but, more importantly, blossomed as a person.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the December 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.