When he crashed to his death at Las Vegas in October, Dan Wheldon was enjoying a renaissance in his career. Wheldon had lost his job with Panther Racing near the end of last year and was without a ride this season, other than a one-off appearance at Indianapolis driving for Bryan Herta’s team. Incredibly, he came through to win the Indy 500, and then landed a job testing the new 2012 Dallara Indycar and Honda engine. IndyCar Series boss Randy Bernard offered Wheldon a $5 million bonus if he could enter and win the last race of the year, starting from the back of the field. Meanwhile, Wheldon and Michael Andretti were working out an agreement for the Briton to return full-time to Andretti’s team next year driving a car sponsored by Go-Daddy, primary backer of the NASCAR-bound Danica Patrick.
So Wheldon arrived in Las Vegas in extremely good spirits and was moving steadily through the field in pursuit of his $5m carrot when he was the victim of a 220mph collision involving 15 cars. Wheldon’s car was launched skyward and crashed upside-down into the barrier. It was a terrible end for the 33-year old from Buckinghamshire who had built a tremendous career in America. Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 — the first Englishman to do so since Graham Hill in 1966 — and the IRL title with Michael Andretti’s team in 2005, finished second in the 500 with Panther in 2009-10, and won the race for a second time this year with Herta’s team (above).
Dan started his career in karts, winning numerous races and the Ayrton Senna World Cup before moving up to cars in 1996 when he was 18. He was second in that year’s Formula Vauxhall Junior championship and finished fourth in the following year’s British Formula Ford championship, winning three races. In 1998 Dan drove a factory Van Diemen and took third in the championship with four wins and was second in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, losing out to old karting rival Jenson Button.
But he couldn’t find the money to do Formula 3 and decided instead to gamble on a move to America. In 1999 Wheldon claimed the US F2000 championship in style, winning six races and taking five more podium finishes. The following year he was second in the Toyota Atlantic series with two wins and four poles. Then came Indy Lights in ’01 where he again won races and fought for the championship, finishing second in the points. In ’02 Dan started two IRL races for Panther Racing and did some testing for Honda with Andretti-Green, with whom he signed a contract for his rookie Indycar season in 2003.
Wheldon immediately found his feet with Andretti-Green, taking rookie of the year honours in ’03 and then winning three races in ’04 to finish second in the championship to teammate Tony Kanaan. The next year was even better as he won six races, Indy 500 included, and took the IRL title.
For 2006 Wheldon moved to Chip Ganassi’s team and almost won the IRL title again, finishing the year tied on points with Sam Hornish who took the championship because he won four races to Wheldon’s two. Dan was also very strong at Indianapolis, leading 148 laps before he was forced to make a late stop to change a cut tyre, finishing fourth. He also won that year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona co-driving one of Ganassi’s cars with Scott Dixon and Casey Mears.
Wheldon continued with Ganassi in 2007 and ’08, winning a couple of races each year and finishing fourth in the points. But Ganassi was unhappy with Wheldon’s performances in the expanding number of road and street races, dropping him for 2009 in favour of Dario Franchitti. Wheldon returned to Panther Racing, and while struggling in some road and street races he was seriously competitive at Indianapolis, taking second in 2009 behind Franchitti and second again in ’10 to Helio Castroneves.
For this year Panther decided to try rookie JR Hildebrand in preference to Wheldon. At Indianapolis both proved their worth as Hildebrand led until crashing in the last turn on the last lap, letting Wheldon through to score a Cinderella win with Herta’s team and re-ignite his flagging career. After his shocking death in Las Vegas five months later there were many tears, and his friend and rival Franchitti paid Wheldon a warm compliment.
“We lost a good friend,” said Dario. “Everybody in the IndyCar Series considered Dan a friend. He was one of those rare, special people from the first moment he showed up in IndyCar. He was kind of brash but he was a charmer. Then he became this loving, family guy who was still charming, but he had this whole new side to him.”
Motor Sport extends its deepest condolences to Dan’s wife Susie, their two sons and his father and family in the UK.