Remembering Dan Wheldon

Sunday 16th October 2011. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. An eerie silence falls over the city’s motor speedway. A horrific 15 car accident has taken place during the final round of the IndyCar Series season, and for two hours, fans await news. Drivers emerge from a meeting with tears in their eyes. Team members up and down the pit lane are shaking their heads and consoling each other. Emotion fills the voices of the TV commentators during their impossible task of reassuring viewers. It seems only a matter of time before we get the announcement that all motor racing fans dread…

The story starts in 1993. Nigel Mansell, fresh from finally winning the Formula 1 title the year before, switched to the IndyCar Series and won the title at the first attempt, a unique feat unlikely to ever be achieved again. As a result, many exiles from the European racing scene unable to get into F1 saw a new opportunity to further their careers. The publicity Mansell brought to the series made it one of the most popular and prestigious racing series of the world, putting it behind only F1 until the series split into two separate championships in 1996.

Buckinghamshire’s Daniel Wheldon, a rival of future F1 stars Jenson Button and Mark Webber in the junior formulae, was one of these exiles. Unable to progress in Europe, he took the bold decision in 1999 to switch to American open wheel racing instead. Initially it took some time for him to find his feet, oval racing being a very different beast to the road circuit racing he was brought up on in his junior days. But by 2004, Dan (as he was now known) was a race winner in IndyCar, driving for one of the top teams in the series, Andretti Green Racing.

The following year, he went a step further. Dominating all year, he won the legendary Indianapolis 500, becoming the first Briton to do so since F1 legend Graham Hill in 1966, and went on to clinch the IndyCar title comfortably. It was clear that we were witnessing the emergence of a considerable talent, not least to legendary team boss Chip Ganassi, who signed Wheldon for the 2006 season.

He adapted to his new surroundings immediately, winning the Daytona 24 Hours sportscar race for his new team in January, and then winning the first race of the IndyCar season in Miami, an event marred by the tragic death of fellow driver Paul Dana in a practice session. He took the title fight to the final round in Chicago but missed out by the smallest of margins – tied on points, he lost the title to Sam Hornish Jr on race wins.

After this, interest in Wheldon intensified from the two most powerful motorsport series in the world – F1 team BMW Sauber offered him a drive, and he was also linked with a lucrative move to NASCAR. But despite stating his desire to further his career in the future, he chose not to cash in and decided to remain in IndyCar with Ganassi. He would never hit the same heights again, finishing 4th in the championship in both 2007 and 2008, after which he was released by the team and replaced by Scotsman Dario Franchitti. The opportunity for a money-spinning move was gone.

While Franchitti would go on to win the title with Ganassi in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Wheldon struggled in the midfield for 2 years with the small Panther Racing team, the highlights being finishing 2nd in the Indy 500 in both years, adding to his impressive record in the great race. In 2011, he was forced to sit on the sidelines, with only a drive for that event with minnow team Bryan Herta Autosport. In the closing stages, he once again found himself lying 2nd, when leader JR Hildebrand, his replacement at Panther, crashed in the final corner of the final lap, allowing Wheldon to swoop past and take the unlikeliest of victories. For me, this was where he cemented his place among the greats. It was his 16th IndyCar race victory. It would also be his last.

The rest of the year was to be spent testing the new 2012 IndyCar, until he received an invitation to compete in the last race of the season in Las Vegas, where non-regular racers in the series were offered the chance of winning $5 million if they could defeat the regulars and win the race after starting last. At the same time, he began negotiating for a return in 2012 to the Andretti team he had won the title with, which was due to be announced after the race.

It was all coming together nicely for the likeable Englishman, who, like his former rival Button, had developed from a brash young charger into a mature and well-respected elder statesman of the sport, and was in the process of reviving his career. The shock and outpouring of grief seen after his tragic death at 33, as an innocent bystander to an accident that happened ahead of him, shows how much he was valued within the tight-knit racing fraternity, including many who have no involvement in IndyCar.

The past half-decade has been a golden age for British motorsport. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have stolen the limelight here for their successes, but Wheldon is one of a number of drivers, including his friend and rival Dario Franchitti, 4-time European and World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx, German touring car champions Gary Paffett and Paul di Resta (now competing in F1 with Force India), and sportscar star Allan McNish, who have been incredibly successful in their respective fields but have largely slipped under the radar in the national sports media. It is a real shame that in Wheldon’s case, the acclaim he has deserved for so long in Britain will now be posthumous.

This is a tragic reminder that motorsport remains dangerous, despite the many safety advancements over the past few decades. Dan Wheldon is not the first to die in a racing car, and he will not be the last. The debates will rumble on over whether or not it was a safe situation to be in, but ultimately, it’s irrelevant. The IndyCar Series has lost a hero, the Wheldon family has lost a son, brother, husband and father, and the world has lost a genuinely nice guy.

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