LAS VEGAS >> Dan Wheldon, who moved to the United States from his native England with hopes of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to twice prevail at his sport’s most famed race, died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300.
One of the most well-liked drivers in the paddock, Wheldon was 33.
He called the Indy 500 “the biggest sporting event in the world,” and his second and final win there came in a most unexpected fashion. Trailing rookie JR Hildebrand with only one turn remaining, Wheldon was resigned to finishing second for the third straight year.
Then Hildebrand brushed the wall just seconds away from what seemed like certain victory, giving Wheldon one of the luckiest breaks ever at the Brickyard. He crossed the line in front, making the final lap the only one he led in the entire race.
Wheldon returned to the track the next morning for the traditional photo session with the winner, kissing the bricks as his 2-year-old son Sebastian sat on the asphalt alongside him, and his wife, Susie, held their then-2-month-old son Oliver.
“That’s Indianapolis,” Wheldon said after this year’s Indy win. “That’s why it’s the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Such was the case again Sunday at Las Vegas.
Wheldon started last in the 34-car field and was up to 24th quickly, but still well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the fateful lap. Still, he had no way to avoid the wrecks in front of him. There was no time to brake or steer out of trouble. His car sailed into the fence extending high over the track barrier, and about two hours later, his death was announced.
Wheldon began driving go-karts as a 4-year-old, and racing was a constant in his life as he attended school in England as a child, winning eight British national titles along the way. He moved to the U.S. in 1999, trying to find sponsor money to fund his dream, and by 2002 — after stints in some lower-profile open-wheel series, such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights — he was on the IndyCar grid for the first time.
Wheldon was a fast study. He got his first IndyCar Series ride in 2002, competing twice with Panther Racing, then replaced Michael Andretti when Andretti retired the next season and won Rookie of the Year.
His first victory came the next season, in Japan, and he finished second in the championship standings behind Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. The next year, he was the series champion. NASCAR teams talked to him about changing series. So did Formula One organizations.
In the end, he decided IndyCar was his calling.
“The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500,” Wheldon said in 2005, not long after becoming the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the race. “It would be really difficult to leave this series because of that race.”
A star was born at that 2005 Indy 500 — and it wasn’t necessarily Wheldon, the winner. Danica Patrick was a rookie at Indy that year, and not only did she steal the show, she nearly took the biggest prize as well. Wheldon passed Patrick with less than 10 laps to go and held on for the victory, and that wasn’t the last time those two would share a spotlight.
At Milwaukee in 2007, Wheldon and Patrick brushed cars during the race, then brushed bodies on pit road after the race in a relatively heated exchange.
He good-naturedly poked fun at what was fast known as Danicamania following the 2005 race, famously posing in a T-shirt afterward with the words “Actually ’Won’ The Indy 500” emblazoned on the front. Wheldon got his share of fame as well after that ’05 win, of course, throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game and appearing on CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.”
On Sunday, Patrick, making her last IndyCar start before moving to NASCAR, was clearly emotional after drivers were told of Wheldon’s death. Wheldon would have taken over for Patrick in IndyCar for the 2012 season. Andretti Autosport, the team with which Wheldon won the 2005 Indy 500, had agreed to a contract early Sunday for Wheldon to return to the team, and the actual deal was supposed to be signed after the race.
Even with his resume — two Indy wins, 16 race victories on the circuit overall — Wheldon found it difficult just to stay in the series, at least in 2011. He finished among the top 10 in IndyCar points annually from 2004 through 2010, but Sunday was only Wheldon’s third start of the 2011 campaign.
Lacking the financial backing to secure a full-time ride for himself this season, Wheldon kept busy by working as a commentator for some races and testing prototype cars that the IndyCar series will be using in the future. IndyCar will have new cars in 2012, much of the changes done with a nod to safety. It had been a passion of Wheldon’s in recent months, and he once quipped that he was a “test dummy” for the new cars by working with engineers as often as he was.
“We need to make sure that the product that the IndyCar Series puts out toward the end of this year, beginning of 2012, is something that primarily the fans get very excited about, but also the teams and drivers,” Wheldon said this summer. “And obviously we want to make sure that the product we put out is incredibly safe.”
Wheldon, his wife and their children lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he often said that he believed fatherhood made him a better driver.
Wheldon said the 2011 Indy victory was “a Cinderella story,” and lauded his wife for helping him deal with all that came with not having a full-time driving gig this season. He did not personally need money — his winnings already ensured his family would be set for life, he said — but rather the lack of sponsorship funds is what kept him from regularly racing this year.
At times, he said it was difficult, and Wheldon credited his wife for helping him through the emotional lows.
“There’s times where you do doubt yourself a little bit,” Wheldon said after this year’s Indy win. “Through all of this, she’s been incredibly supportive and she understands that this is all I’ve ever done. Racing is all I’ve ever done. She knows that racing creates the personality in me that she loves. So she was desperate to get me back out the house and in a race car. It’s good to deliver for her, my two boys, my family back home, too.”
Off the track, Wheldon had varied interests, some of which had almost nothing to do with his driving.
He raised money for several charities, was a spokesman for the National Guard and its education-awareness programs, and most recently tried to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. His mother was diagnosed with an early onset form of that disease in 2009.
He visited Lake Placid, N.Y., in 2010 for the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Challenge, taking a run down the icy chute — and getting ejected from the back of a two-man sled in a crash. Wheldon was unhurt, and even hopped to his feet quickly, taking a bow.
“Us IndyCar drivers, we like to go fast,” Wheldon said that day.
Later that year, he released a photo book he called “Lionheart,” a coffee table book that he described as “almost like a photo biography from my career in IndyCars up until this point.” He spent years editing the book, which included dozens of photos of his life away from the track, including images from his wedding.
“I wanted it to have a lot of my input,” Wheldon said last year. “Obviously, it’s a reflection of me.”
He also wanted that book to provide his fans with a glimpse of his life that they would never have known otherwise.
“There’s a lot of my wedding in there,” Wheldon said. “I wanted there to be a lot of photos of my wife. She was the most beautiful bride on her wedding day the world had ever seen.”