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 triumphs. 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.
“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.
“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.
Bobby Unser was a legend on the track – but it was his conviction off it which made him equally as popular, writes Preston Lerner
“Dan shouldn’t have been a free agent. He was too good for us, but he never he never made us feel that way.”
It might have been all goodwill projected within his own stable, but Wheldon had some axes to grind out on track after being left out of a top team. The man from Buckinghamshire had a point to prove.
“He was very like that,” comments Herta. “He never said it, but he wanted to win the 500, to prove that he was still that guy that won the race before and all those others. It was very much about that.”
Wheldon’s bravado continued as he qualified a promising sixth out of a 33-car grid.
Herta and his green team were still cautious though.
“There was great teams [in that race],” he says. “As a group, we’d never even done a pitstop in the heat of battle. There were so many ways that it could and probably should have gone wrong.”
Come the race start, Wheldon made a strong re-entry into IndyCar racing. Though for the first half of the 200 laps it was Schmidt’s Alex Tagliani, then the Ganassi pair of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti who led, Wheldon was always in touch, circulating between third and fifth.
The Englishman was still in the mix on lap 164 when a crash brought out another yellow flag and strategies split. Some, like Dario Franchitti and Panther’s JR Hildebrand, opted to come in for a quick splash and dash, hoping to last the rest of the race by fuel-saving.
Others, which included Wheldon who pitted on lap 178, opted to stay out longer and lose track position, hoping to fight back without having to save fuel. This turned out to be a crucial decision for the Englishman and his small squad.
The team’s strategy going into the race had been to play it safe, and let Wheldon bring the on-track fireworks if he had the chance. It turned out to be the perfect plan.
“We were focused on eliminating mistakes, trying to get the most out of what we could,” says Herta. “We weren’t going to do anything crazy – strategy-wise – we were going to just try and run a normal race and let Dan do this thing on track.”
With 11 laps to go, Wheldon was only eighth – but then the unthinkable actually started to happen, as other cars gradually peeled off for fuel.
“I just remember when we got to fourth, thinking at that point: ‘Wouldn’t this be amazing if we can hang on for fourth?'” laughs Herta.
Six cars in front of Wheldon dropped into the pits for fuel until, with one lap to go, he was second.
“Then it’s only Hildebrand,” says Herta. “You think well, ‘Surely he’s going to pit’, but then he doesn’t. You start the last lap, he still hasn’t pitted. You think ‘Okay, well that’s it. Second place, this is just going to be amazing…”
Hildebrand was the man who had replaced Wheldon at Panther, the Englishman now mercilessly hunting down the fuel-saving American, but it appeared he would run out of time.
However, grip was particularly low off-line that day. Multiple cars had tried to pass round the outside of Turn 4 and ended up in the wall as they slid on the marbles.
Did you catch the Formula E double-header from Valencia on the BBC at the weekend? If so, how’s the blood pressure? I suspect mine went through the roof. So thank…
Understandably, in the heat of the moment, the young Hildebrand didn’t heed the multiple offs. As he came upon the backmarker Charlie Kimble into the final corner of the last lap of the 2011 Indy 500, the rookie who was oh-so-close to winning on his debut should have backed off and passed him on the straight.
Instead, he tried to pass him round the outside of the corner, and the unthinkable then really did happen. Within sight of the finish line, Hildebrand lost grip on the dirtier part of the track, and slammed into the barrier.
“I stood up on the pit wall to watch Dan come off of 4 and come down to the line,” says Herta. “Just as I did, I saw Hildebrand hit the wall. I remember turning and looking down at my partner Steve Newey and saying ‘We just won the Indy 500.’ Just like that.”
As Hildebrand slid agonisingly down the finishing straight with the chequered flag in sight, Dan Wheldon surged past to take what is possibly the most unlikely Indy 500 victory of all time.
“I still feel terrible for JR,” says Herta. “He’s a really good guy and a good driver. I hate to see that for anybody. But the elation of the moment, when Dan crossed the line, I doubt I’ll have that again in my lifetime.”
Wheldon was beside himself with emotion, tears streaming down his face as he climbed out of the car to drink the victory milk. A difficult year on the sidelines had been compounded by his mother being diagnosed with Alzheimers, his voice quivering through post-race interviews.
However, there was still some relief in that moment. With the tiny Bryan Herta Autosport team, he really had proved the doubters wrong.
“We had a little whiteboard in our garage,” recalls Herta. “We put a job list on things to do on the car and we had little checkboxes.
“I remember on race morning, Dan wrote at the bottom list: ‘Win the Indy 500’.
“We’re then all in the garage celebrating after the race. When Dan came back from doing his media scrum, he walked into the garage, grabbed the marker and checked that last box.
“You remember those moments.”
When Wheldon passed Hildebrand, Herta and his team’s world turned on a sixpence (or a dime if you’re Stateside). The team boss is in no doubt as to the effect that win had on their collective future.
“It’s hard to talk about it, but I still hear his voice – I know he would want me to”
“It made our team – 100%,” says Herta. “Steve and I didn’t have millions and millions of dollars to put a full-time programme together the following year.
“IndyCar was talking about wanting to put a test program together for the new 2012 Indycar. We wanted to do it, but I don’t know if they took us that seriously.
“After you win the Indy 500, it was instant credibility. It’s like ‘Clearly these guys can handle it.’
“On the back of that we got the job to test the 2012 Dallara. Dan was the test driver. Instead of getting paid, we asked for an IndyCar, and we were able to keep our mechanics, our engineers, our team together.
“Without that 500 when I don’t think there’s a Bryan Herta Autosport in January 2012, let alone May 2021.”
Heart-wrenchingly, the dream would soon turn to a nightmare. Wheldon was tragically killed at the 2011 Las Vegas finale whilst aiming to become the ‘Five Million Dollar Man’ – the prize for coming from the back to win in a 34-car field.
A hellish multiple-car shunt, of which Wheldon was at the back, launched him into the catch-fencing. His head connecting with a fence-post, he stood no chance of survival in what was a tragic end to a brilliant life.
For Herta though, Dan is still with him in some ways.
“It’s hard sometimes for me to talk about it, but I still hear his voice – I know he would want me to,” he says.
“Dan loved the attention. He would love that people were still writing about him. He really was an amazing character, and his story needs to be told.”