At the awards banquet the day after the centennial Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti watched Dan Wheldon squirm. Wheldon had noticed his former teammates, Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, texting one another feverishly during commercial breaks. A monumental prank – the pie in the face of all pies in the face – was certainly bound for the winner.
“Dan started getting nervous, but this is where the Dan of today and the Dan of 2005 differ,” Franchitti explains. “He came over and said, ‘If you get me, you have to get (Bryan) Herta, too.' Tony and I got Bryan with the ice bucket. Dan knew his ice bucket was coming, but we never did anything to him. The fun was actually watching him squirm. It was like a throwback to the old days. We used to do this stuff to Dan because of the reaction we got. It was all part of the fun.”
Except for one monumental detail: The Dan Wheldon who won the Indy 500 in 2011 is nothing like the Dan Wheldon who won in 2005. The modern Wheldon is relaxed, thoughtful, polite, grounded and quietly confident. The Wheldon of '05? Often he wasn't any of those things.
Nobody knows this better than Kanaan, Franchitti, Herta and Dixon, all of whom saw the best and worst of Wheldon throughout the years as his teammate – and were delighted to playfully razz him after his second 500 victory.
“Dan's changed,” says fellow two-time Indy winner Franchitti. “He's changed a massive amount. Experience and tough situations have a way of teaching you things. He's grown up a lot. We went through the stage of him being the annoying little brother. Then we had the stage where he sent me up in the air in Michigan. But we've come full circle. I'm really proud of him and the way he's handled everything that's happened. The last two years were difficult for him, but he's come through it.”
At the forefront of the IndyCar scene after that 2005 victory, Wheldon twice was pressed out of good rides in unusual circumstances. The irony of beating Panther Racing's John Barnes, whom Wheldon had to sue to receive his retainer from last season, wasn't lost on anyone inside the garages after the 500. Wheldon, you'll recall, has two of those four consecutive runner-up Indy finishes by Panther on his résumé, as well as a strange ending with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in '08, when Ganassi flirted openly with Kanaan, which led to Wheldon bolting for Panther.
But the Wheldon of tantrums and petulant behavior is long gone; remaining only is the enormous talent at racing ovals, especially the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He helped take a team that had raced only once previously in the IZOD IndyCar Series – at last year's 500 – and made it believe that it could win the biggest race of the year. Then he went out and did precisely that. The annoying little brother had become a team leader, even if it was for only one race.
“They were nervous to some degree before we got going,” Wheldon said of Bryan Herta Autosport and its Indy collaboration with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. “One of the engineers said to me after the second day of practice, ‘Hey, thank you for making us believe that we can do this.' I said, ‘Listen, I'm not doing anything. The speed in the car is a testament to you.' At that point, I was just driving around. Anybody could have done it. They did a good job, and I had a lot of fun. We'll just have to see where this takes us, but I don't think it hurts our chances for the future.”
It's ironic that Herta, of all people, was Wheldon's employer for this race. In the past, when the Andretti Green Racing team picked on Wheldon just to hear him scream, Bryan was the ringleader, and the pranks were full-throttle mischief. Dan was an odd bird when he joined Andretti Green Racing in 2003 (LEFT), a young, fastidious Brit with a closet of fine shoes and designer clothing and he was prone to moments of diva that would make Mariah Carey wince.
So, during a race weekend at Twin Ring Motegi, Herta organized a reorganization of Wheldon's room at the track's hotel, where most drivers and officials stay. He, Kanaan and Franchitti commandeered a key to Wheldon's room, sneaked in while he was away and got to work. “We took out the TV, cranked up the heater and boxed up all his left shoes and shipped them back to the U.S.,” Herta says. “We did things you can't print.”
After the dirty deed, they found Wheldon, brought him back to the hotel, said goodnight and quickly ducked into their rooms on the same floor. “We were all there with our ears pressed to our doors,” Herta recalls. “Sure enough, after about 20 seconds he came bursting into the hallway, screaming and swearing. He was furious. Everyone on the floor came out of their rooms except us. We weren't coming out for anything.”
Now, seven years later, they won't even prank him after he wins the 500. Instead, they'll just watch him fidget about the expectation of a prank. That's how different Wheldon is. He's gained their respect as a racer, most certainly, but also as a person. Herta points to the fact that this 500 made Wheldon cry, whereas the first one just made him throw a massive party. Wheldon agrees, seeing the difference in himself and the difference in the two 500s.
“They're both immense wins for me, but this is perhaps more of an emotional one,” Wheldon says. “I was a kid back then at a totally different stage in my life, sponsored by Jim Beam. I was very different. Very different. For example, I can actually remember what I'm saying to you right now. Back then, I probably couldn't have.”
Now Dan is married, the father of two young boys. He's settled. He's talkative, pleasant, approachable. At the Honda hospitality tent, where drivers mingle with others in the IZOD IndyCar Series during race weekends, Wheldon is a welcome addition, happily chatting with everyone he encounters.
“It's been quite a change in him – quite a change,” Franchitti says. “He has a quiet confidence about him now. He knew even after the hard times of the last two years that he can go around Indy as well as anybody. He didn't have to tell anyone, but it was good to see.”
Perhaps, the former teammates suggest, Wheldon comprehends his accomplishments and his struggles and understands the game better than he did in the beginning. He came to IndyCar racing fast and edgy, but now he's eased off the pedal. He knows the fragility of his profession and embraces those around him. And, more importantly, he embraces himself and his role in racing.
“He's at a different point in his life,” Herta says. “Without trying to sound like his dad or an old guy, I'm proud of the person he's become. When you have as much success early on as he did, you can go in different directions. But Dan has really taken it all on board. He understands his role and position in the sport. He's appreciative of everything that comes his way. This sport doesn't owe you anything, and nothing is guaranteed. When something like this happens, you have to savor it for what it is, because it may never happen again to any of us.”
Neither will the prank, which has shape-shifted into something altogether different. Instead of a bucket of ice water or a pie in the face, it's a moment of quiet respect for what Wheldon has become. The annoying little brother is still one hell of a racecar driver, but now he's all grown up.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the July 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.