Sunday, 16 October 2011

Dan Wheldon 1978-2011

Dan Wheldon with his elder son kissing the bricks at the finish line of Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year

British motorsports fans often forget about Dan Wheldon. When it comes to car racing it is all about Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton but for the last few years he and Bathgate's Dario Franchitti have been two of the leading lights in the IRL Indycar series.

Wheldon actually won the title in 2005, before Dario won the first of his three titles prior to the one he won as a result of the crash that took Wheldon's life today. He has also won the Indianapolis 500 twice in that 2005 season and again this, therefore matching Frachetti's success as the only two time British winners of that race.

Wheldon was born in Emberton, near Olney, Buckinghamshire, England. In his early career racing open wheeled formula he had a great rivalry with Formula One World Championship winning driver Jenson Button. However in 1999 their paths took a different track with Wheldon heading to America because his family could not fund him in the UK and European formula that are the normal route to F1.

He progressed through the lower American open wheel series U.S. F2000 Championship Series, the Toyota Atlantic series and the Indy Lights series. Until in 2002 he got the call from Andretti Green Racing to replace Michael Andretti who was retiring from racing. He was to win the rookie of the year title.

In 2004 at Twin Win Motegi in Japan he won his first Indycar race, and gathered two more wins that season to finish second in the championship to his team mate Sam Hornish Jr.

The folowing season he became the first Brit since Graham Hill, Damon's father, to win the Indianapolis 500. With five wins, a record under the IRL sanction, he won his only Indycar championship.

At the end of 2005 he announced that he was moving to Chip Ganassi Racing, but he won the 24 Hours of Daytona along with Scott Dixon and Casey Mears. At the end of the 2006 Indycar season he was equal on points with his former team mate Sam Hornish Jr., but the American's not liking two winners had a tiebreak of the most wins which was 4-2 for Hornish and he was therefore declared the champion.

In September 2008 he was released from Chip Ganassi to be replace by Dario Franchitti, who had won the title in 2007. In 2009 he raced for Panther Racing, giving them a second spot in the Indianapolis 500 a feat he would repeat in 2010, when he remained more competitive through the whole season. However, he failed to win a race with Panther and was replaced by J.R. Hildebrand.

He hadn't secured a regular drive for the 2011 season but driving for Bryan Herta Motorsport he took the honours once again in the Indianapolis 500 a race win he dedicated to his mother who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimers.

He had started on the back of the 34 car grid and had already made up 10 places in the first 12 laps when the crash happened at the Las Vegas Indy 300. He would have shared a $5 million special one off prize with one lucky fan if he had won the race.

At about 23:00 UK time the drivers and officials came out of a briefing session at the track. Twitter was alive with people reporting on the looks of the drivers faces as they came out not looking good. Shortly after a very short press conference (see below) announced the news that Dan Wheldon had indeed died as a result of the crash at the age of 33. The drivers still in shock decided to honour Dan with a five lap salute, his care number 77 was the only one that was displayed on the position boards at the track as they went around in his honour.

Here is footage of the five lap salute and you can hear a bagpiper playing Amazing Graze probably a CD or some such over the PA but a nice touch. With his pit crew standing out at the point his car came to rest.

Thoughts and prayers go to his wife Suzie Behm, and sons Sebastian 2 and Oliver not yet 7 months old, his mother and his father, who started him on the road to a career in racing, at this difficult time.

Dan Wheldon 22 June 1978 - 16 October 2011

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