Dan Wheldon was IndyCar’s great comeback story — the brash, British former Rookie of the Year who’d pulled out of a humbling slump to take the Indy 500. But last October, on a crowded Vegas track, the fairy tale came to a chilling end.
In 2005, his third year with Andretti, Wheldon qualified 16th for the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500 is the largest one-day event on the planet, drawing 400,000 spectators. For many drivers, just qualifying is a big deal, but Wheldon wasn’t happy with his position and wanted to withdraw and try to requalify with a backup car — a major risk. When Herta tried to console him, Wheldon snapped. “I said, ‘Jeez, Dan, you got a great position. You can win from the front two rows,’ ” Herta says. “He said, ‘That may be good enough for you, brother, but it ain’t good enough for me.’”
Wheldon ended up dominating the field and winning the race, the first Brit to have done so since 1966. But his victory, and his $1.53 million purse, was overshadowed by Danica Patrick. The model-hot 23-year-old finished fourth and made the cover of that week’s Sports Illustrated.
In that third year, Wheldon went on to win the Series championship in points, winning six of 17 races and breaking the record for most victories in a season. Yet he still felt overshadowed — and even doubted his skills, as if he couldn’t have won Indy on his own. For all his confidence, he felt like he was just another driver on an all-star team — even if it was the best ever assembled. The following year, he did the unthinkable, leaving a winning Andretti team — and his friends and mentors — for one that was struggling.
The next few years would be disappointing for Wheldon, at least on the track. He failed to find a groove with Chip Ganassi’s Target Team, and though he won the 2006 season opener in a nail-biter and finished second for the season, nothing came easy over the next few years. His new teammate, Scott Dixon, didn’t thrill to the hot new driver. “He was a cocky Brit, and he always wanted his own way,” he says. But Wheldon’s diligence eventually won him over.
“After a test run, he would write a 20-page debriefing of what the car was doing on track,” Dixon says. “I would say, ‘Oh, man, that’s nuts, it’s only two corners.’ But that’s why he was so good on the ovals. It’s such a small movement you have to make with the wheel. A lot of how you get the car better is you describe what you feel, what you like, what you dislike. That’s what the whole relationship between you and the engineer is.”
In an attempt to liven the competition and win new fans, IndyCar had begun running fewer ovals and more road races, which involved many more turns. Wheldon struggled somewhat on these courses and fell behind his teammate Dixon.
The biggest headline he would make that 2007 season was a negative one. He tapped wheels with Danica Patrick at a race in Milwaukee, sending her flying into the infield with a busted steering rod. Patrick confronted him after the race, pulling at his arm and shoving him. “If you don’t think I’m going to remember this,” she warned him, “you’re crazy.” In an interview after the race, Wheldon shot back, “She’s messing with the wrong person if she wants to get feisty. I’m a lot tougher than she is on the track.” Always the showman, Wheldon knew he’d stumbled onto a great storyline. For days, he ratcheted up the battle with Patrick in the press, calling her a brat. The media ate up “the Brit and the brat.” The marketing department at Texas Motor Speedway, where the pair had an upcoming race, launched a fight-themed advertising campaign worthy of the WWE: “Rumble at the Speedway.” Wheldon loved it, says Sussmann: “He knew exactly how to milk all that.”
But none of that altered the fact that he was still losing, though his slump and his settling down with Susie seemed to have brought about positive change in him personally. “There was a maturity that came along,” says Franchitti, who with his wife, actress Ashley Judd, socialized with the couple away from the track.
Days after they married at a St. Petersburg hotel (with Behm’s father officiating), Wheldon lost the season opener at Homestead, which he’d won the previous three years. He was beaten not only in his own backyard, but by his own teammate, Scott Dixon, who went on to win the Indy 500 and the Series championship that year. “When your teammate is beating you,” Sussmann says, “it chips away at your confidence.”
By season’s end, Ganassi was secretly negotiating with Wheldon’s friend Kanaan to take his spot. When it came out in the media, Wheldon felt blindsided. He quickly left the team for Panther Racing, which he’d leave two years later. At the end of the 2010 season, he was a multimillionaire — having earned many millions in winnings over the years. But he was a man without a car or any way to get back behind the wheel.
Every day Wheldon wasn’t in the driver’s seat he was off pursuing sponsors for the upcoming season. He fielded offers from lesser teams, but he knew there was no point in running around the middle of the pack. He was interested only in winning. “It was really tough for him,” Sussmann says. “The music stopped, and there was no seat for him to sit in.” By early 2011, Wheldon had exhausted his options. He decided to use his time off by focusing on his family. Susie was about to give birth to their second son, Oliver, and he wanted to get over to England to spend more time with his mother. Indy needed a driver for a summer program to test its new car for the next season; Wheldon hoped they would choose him for the job. There was also the possibility of a commentator spot with Versus TV. Beyond that, he would simply wait and see how the season shook out without him.
But before long, he started talking to Bryan Herta. His former teammate had put together his own team and needed help. After a few friendly chats and some number crunching, Wheldon agreed to drive for him as a one-off in the Indy 500 in May. When Herta called a press conference in St. Petersburg to announce the Indy run, he was modest. He knew he had a small, untested team, and he kept expectations in line. All he’d say was, “We’re looking forward to a great race.”
Wheldon was less demure. “I’m gonna win this,” he promised.
Everyone was tickled. “It was a helluva claim for a little team like ours,” Herta says, “but he was serious.”
In the weeks leading up to the Indy 500, Wheldon stalked Herta’s garage, handing out nicknames, telling them that they were a great team, that this was their chance, “It pushed our guys,” Herta says. “They kept looking harder to find seconds in the car. He set the expectation high, and the feeling was, ‘We can’t let this guy down.’”
The race turned into one of the wildest upsets in Indy 500 history. With 23 laps remaining, Wheldon shot out of the pits in 13th position and started chasing down cars like a cheetah in a patch of antelopes. He soon closed in on the leader, a rookie named JR Hildebrand, who had all but sewn up the victory. On the final stretch, it looked like Wheldon would again come in second, as he had the previous two Indys. But in the last turn, Hildebrand slammed into the wall — and before he could sputter across the finish line, Wheldon tore past him for the win. From his cockpit, Wheldon shook his fist, as his old boss Andretti applauded him from across the field.
The victory made Wheldon the 18th driver in history to win the Indy more than once. But it still left him without a full-time ride.
Meanwhile, IndyCar’s new CEO, Randy Bernard, had been trying to lure drivers outside Indy to take on a publicity challenge — to race with the Indy drivers in Vegas for a $5 million purse. Drivers from NASCAR and Formula One and even an extreme sports athlete turned him down. That left Wheldon, whom Bernard declared eligible, because he had not raced since winning the 500 in May. But in order to drive, Wheldon had to agree to two conditions: He had to start at the back of the pack, and he had to split the winnings with a fan.
Bernard was so confident the stunt would work that he staked his job on its success: “I’ve made it very clear that I’d be very disappointed — I think I even told someone I’d resign — if we didn’t triple the ratings.”
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