INDY’S FORGOTTEN BRITISH WINNER
Doug Nye Dan Wheldon’s latest Indy vIctory adds to BrIta’n’s roll of honour. But UK Speedway success began wIth ‘the other Darlo’ In 1916 got up in the marbles and that was it…” must be one of the most poignant quotes I can recall, given the circumstances of J RHildebrand losing his tactically well-merited race lead in the 800th — and last — corner of this year’s Indianapolis 500. The 25-year-old Panther Racing Dallara driver had entered that final lap of Indy’s centenary-year race looking assured of a famous rookie victory. But then came the error as he rushed up onto the starboard quarter of diabetic driver Charlie Kimball’s Ganassi team car. Not confident of the time cushion he had from English driver Dan Wheldon’s pursuing car he opted for one final
pass rather than prudently backing off to save slipstreaming past Kimball until after Turn 4. So young Hildebrand aimed instead for the outside line, regardless of the tyre debris dusting the surface there, and his Dallara’s tyres promptly lost adhesion on the rubber-rolls and drifted wide, then wider. I dread to imagine the moment he realised the outer wall was rushing out to greet him with a barely cushioned kiss before — karummp — he was into it in a sudden frenzy of shattering suspension and body panelling, spurting high-pressure coolant and oil. And as he sparked along the safety wall as a virtual passenger, his wrecked car scrubbing off momentum, to his left the rival Dallara bawled
past, fit and strong, under control and undamaged to take Wheldon to an admittedly lucky but second Indy win.
Dan Wheldon’s career path highlights the tremendous historical difference between today’s driver prospects and those of our racing past. Inevitably his career began with kart racing from infant into teenage, but then he became one of the few Brits to pursue open-wheel racing prospects in America where sponsorship prospects for a middling talent seemed more rosy. While his peers in the UK and Europe took the conventional
path through white-hot competition towards Formula 1 goals, Wheldon made his way through Toyota Atlantic and Indy Lights until in 2002 he earned a couple of IRL drives as team-mate to Sam Hornish at Panther Racing. He then replaced the retired Michael Andretti at Andretti Green Racing in 2003 and became the IRL’s Rookie of the Year before winning his first championship race, at Motegi, Japan, in 2004. The following year he broke the IRLsanction record for wins in one season — six — including his first Indy 500.
After he had won 15 races, Ganassi replaced him with Dario Franchitti for 2009. Wheldon returned to Panther Racing with whom his IRL career began, and twice finished second at Indy, 2009-2010. But after failing to win for Panther he was replaced for this season by former Indy Lights Champion, JRHildebrand. This set the stage for Hildebrand and Panther, in that fated final corner, to lose victory in this year’s 500, and to take second yet again while Wheldon in his one-off drive for Bryan Herta’s team won instead. As a British double Indy winner, Wheldon now joins Scotsman Dario Franchitti, while according to ‘official’ Speedway statistics three other British drivers have won at Indy during the race’s 100-year history — most famously Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill in 1965-66. The third man listed is diminutive George Robson who won the Indy classic in 1946. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1909, he and his family emigrated, first to Canada in 1917, then in 1924 to the US. Both he and his brother Hal raced successfully before George made his Indy debut, failing to qualify for the 1939 race. He then started in both 1940 and ’41, before his next chance upon the 500’s post-war revival in 1946.
Driving Joel Thorne’s Adams chassis with supercharged six-cylinder Sparks engine, the little Geordie-born driver promptly led 138 of the race’s 200 laps, including the last 108, and won by 44 seconds. Tragically, his luck ran out that September in a multiple accident at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, in which both he and George Barringer were fatally injured.
But while the Indy statistics list 1916 500 winner Dario Resta as an Italian, he had been brought up in Britain from the age of two — much of the time in Wales — and was naturalised British in 1908. Perhaps recalled today only as ‘the other Dario’ he then achieved extraordinary stature in American racing during World War I, after being engaged by US Peugeot importer Alphonse Kaufman to drive a 1913 Grand Prix model, known alternatively as the L56 or `EX3′. In this car, Resta proved very quick and mechanically adept. He promptly drove it to win the United States Grand Prix at San Francisco, then the Vanderbilt Cup and finished second at Indy after a late tyre change before winning the inaugural Chicago 500 Miles.
In 1916 Resta won the Vanderbilt Cup (again), the Chicago 300, and the Minneapolis and Omaha 150s plus the Indy 500. His successes earned him that year’s National Championship title, but as America went to war racing was forgotten, and Resta settled his family in Bakersfield, California, where among other business interests he set up a small speedway.
Post-war he resumed racing, starting a Packard from the front row at Indy in 1923 before returning to Europe and the Sunbeam factory team for 1924. He drove one of their supercharged six-cylinder 2-litre cars in that year’s Grand Prix de l’ACF at Lyons, and a month later at Brooklands set new records in team car ‘DA 8666’ for both the standing and flying-start kilometre and mile, and the fivemile class record — at 114.23mph.
Next day Resta attacked longer-distance records there. He was scheduled to lap at 113mph, but averaged 115 on his second before easing back. As he came off the Members’ Banking onto the Railway Straight on his fourth lap, the Sunbeam’s right-rear tyre suddenly left its rim and despite Resta’s best efforts the car spun and clattered tail-first through the corrugatediron trackside fence. Its fuel tank ignited. Dario Resta lost his life while his riding mechanic, Bill Perkins, was severely injured but survived. A sheared dural security bolt was found lying on the track. What should have been a fairly routine record run against the clock had ended in the loss of Britain’s first Indy 500 winner.