The late, great Dan Wheldon’s career was as action-packed and thrilling as it was heart-breaking. He’ll probably always be best-remembered though, for an incredible second Indy 500 victory.
In a last-lap, last-corner pass, Wheldon came in from the IndyCar cold to win for the minnow Bryan Herta Autosport team with the most unlikely of wins. It was the first time since Graham Hill in 1966 that a one-off entrant had won, and also broke a 99-year record held by Joe Dawson for fewest laps led, Wheldon leading the only one he needed to.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of that momentous 500. Motor Sport spoke to Wheldon’s then team boss Bryan Herta about a day which changed their lives.
“I doubt I’ll have that elation again in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s a story which needs to be told.”
“Dan was one of those guys that just immediately makes a big impression”
A Dario Franchitti back injury and Michael Andretti’s retirement threw the pair together as team-mates at Andretti Green in 2003, with Wheldon immediately making his mark.
“You don’t always remember the first time you meet somebody, but I absolutely remember the first time I met Dan, and it was here at Indianapolis,” says Herta from his motor home, currently parked up at the Speedway as he calls race strategy for his now-IndyCar driver son Colton.
“He was a rookie team-mate who hadn’t won stuff, but he was still the same giant personality. He’s one of those guys that just immediately makes a big impression.”
Wheldon soon made progress in the Indy Racing League, then one half of a splintered US open-wheel scene.
By the end of 2005, he had won the Indy 500 and IRL championship.
Wheldon had almost instant success in IRL, winning the title in his second full season
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
“Dan was the guy that pushed us the hardest,” comments Herta. “He was the guy that went out when it was windy. As veterans [Andretti team-mates Herta, Franchitti and Tony Kanaan], we were more like, ‘Hey, maybe we don’t want to run right now.’ Dan would say. ‘No, Let’s go. I’m going!’ He was just ready, on it, up for anything all the time.”
A big-money move to Chip Ganassi’s team heralded more race wins, but not another title.
However, contract disagreements led to him leaving first Ganassi and then Panther at the end of 2010. The driver, who for a period could seem to do no wrong, was now out in the cold and yesterday’s news.
It was then that his and Herta’s paths crossed again.
“We entered the 2010 500 with Sebastian Saavedra,” says Herta. “We were a very small programme, we did it all on our own. And it was difficult. It was a slog, and we just barely, by luck really, made it into the race at the end of qualifying.”
“Dan just kept saying, ‘Oh, we can win the race, we can do this thing.'”
Those “Bump Day shenanigans”, as Herta puts it, almost bankrupted the team.
“My racing and business partner at the time, Steve Newey, he and I just vowed we weren’t going to do it that way again.”
For 2011, Herta wanted someone whose pace wouldn’t leave the team teetering on the brink of insolvency. In the shape of Wheldon, he got much, much more than that.
The pair hooked up with clothing brand William Rast as sponsor, which brought enough money to form a technical alliance with the Sam Schmidt Racing team, which provided a fast car for Herta to run and valuable technical data.
“The last piece of the puzzle was to get a driver that could actually try and go win the race, and Dan was available,” Herta says. “So I just called him up.”
“I thought it would be a really hard sell. He’d won the race, driven for big teams – we were still not that.”
However, Wheldon said yes – and came in with an unprecedented energy level.
Wheldon focuses pre-race
“It kind of took us on the back foot, just how enthusiastic he was and how much confidence he put in us,” Herta remembers.
“Right away, he just kept saying, ‘Oh, we can win the race, we can do this thing.’
“And we were saying we were going to try and win the race, but I don’t think any of us really believed it at that point – but he did!
“He would come into the garage every day and tell us this. Over time, he transformed our team.
“I don’t know if Dan made us believe we were going to win. But I will say that he believed it so badly, he made us not want to let him down.”
Herta found a racing driver who had the bit between his teeth, and simply would not let go.
“Even on a rainy day, like it is actually as I’m sitting here at the Speedway today, he’d come in the garage, he’d sit in his car and say, ‘Let’s just adjust this or that a little bit – let’s shave a little bit off the windscreen here.”
“It was almost like he knew he’d do it, he just had to get us there”
“He just never stopped trying to improve every little detail that he could control. That really became very infectious for our whole team.”
With the technical tie-up, increased sponsorship and a winning driver, Herta and co knew they had a promising combination. That said, he still knew the odds were stacked against them.
“Yes, we knew we were better [than the previous year],” he concedes. “But the reality is, at that point in 2011, the last non-full-time IndyCar entrant to win the Indy 500 was in the ’60s. It wasn’t like it had happened in the modern era.
“You know, if I’d have gone around telling people the way Dan did, ‘Oh, no, we’re gonna win this thing.’ People would have said ‘You’re taking the piss,’ right? Like, you can’t believe that. But Dan did. He really, really did. It was almost like he knew he’d do it, he just had to get us there.