The Fast Life & Fiery Death of Racing’s Brightest Star
Posted By MJ On January 26, 2012 @ 4:29 pm In Cover Stories,Features
On the night before his final race, Dan Wheldon and his wife, Susie, strolled into a tattoo parlor in the lobby of the Las Vegas Palms Casino, intent on doing something bold to celebrate their lives together. They spent an hour picking out just the right fonts for each other’s initials — small and frilly for Susie’s wrist, big and solid for Dan’s, in keeping with the oversize Ritmo watches he wore.
Susie, who was still breast-feeding their seven-month-old son, Oliver, inquired about the safety of the ink while her husband tried to relax. “I am seriously nervous,” he told tattoo artist Dave LePenske.
“Come on, man,” LePenske ribbed him, dipping the already humming needle. “You drive an open-wheeled car at 200 miles an hour. This is easy, dude. This is nothing.”
The week leading up to Sunday’s race had been epic. It was Indy’s first race in Las Vegas in more than a decade and IndyCar brass made sure to squeeze every bit of promotion from the event — and he’d been in the thick of it all. Sponsorship dinners, a parade down the Strip, a celebrity blackjack tournament where Wheldon outplayed Wayne Gretzky and almost made it to the final table.
Wheldon’s career had seen storybook highs and frustrating lows, but it was back on track. Though he was without a team during the 2011 season, he’d won the first race he’d entered — the Indy 500, for the second time. Now, at 33, he was one of the few superstars in a sport still fighting for relevance.
That week’s race, the Izod IndyCar World Championship, held an added incentive for Wheldon: To boost ratings and juice the drama of the race, he would start at the back of the 34-car pack and earn a $5 million bonus if he somehow managed to win. The stunt was already working: Though two other drivers were competing to win the season, and it would be Danica Patrick’s last Indy event, the prerace buzz revolved around Wheldon.
The rookie known as “Difficult Dan” for his perfectionism and self-assurance had been humbled over the past few years. Without a team to sponsor him, he spent the 2011 season off the track with his two young boys — Oliver and two-year-old Sebastian — and Susie, who’d been his assistant. He also spent time with his family in England, visiting his mother, who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The break matured him, but he was itching to drive: “I’ve been just desperate, period, to get back in a race car since Indianapolis.It’s going to be phenomenal to come back.”
That weekend, the driver had shaken hands on a multimillion-dollar deal to join Andretti Autosport, the team owned by Michael Andretti, for whom Wheldon had first driven in his rookie season in 2003. That Saturday night, he and Susie went to an Andretti team party at the Palms. Afterward, they walked downstairs to Huntington Ink to get their tattoos. When they were finished, the couple posed for pictures, showing off their new ink. “I love yours,” he told Susie. “It’s awesome. It’s perfect.” Everyone wished him luck, and they left to join their sons at their hotel room.
“If you win tomorrow, you better come back,” LePenske said.
“I will,” the driver promised.
Wheldon exuded his usual prerace confidence, though he knew the next day would be a battle. The track was short and tight, a 1.5-mile oval that limited visibility and reaction time. And in 2006, the pitch of its banked corners had been increased, from 12 degrees to 20, allowing cars to run full throttle, at speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour.
Wheldon was disappointed with the speed trials of his car but managed to stay upbeat. “As long as I can find some speed and keep up with the pack,” he wrote on his blog the day before the race, “I’ll do everything I can to put on a show.”
Dan Wheldon was the greatest thing to happen to Indy racing since Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt dominated the sport in the 1960s, when the Indianapolis 500 was on par with single-day events like the Super Bowl and Evel Knievel’s rocket-powered canyon jump. But a bitter split in 1996 destroyed the league, and though it had essentially reconstituted by 2002, the organization struggled to find an audience. To attract sponsors and fans, they needed stars.
Wheldon was the whole package: a fierce and exacting competitor whom sponsors could rally behind. He was a master of the big ovals like Indianapolis and was skilled enough to ride the edge of control to hit winning speeds. “He was born for that racetrack,” says Michael Andretti. “He had a natural, quick ability. The guy was fast right away.”
Yet for all his intensity on the track, he had an easy, winning manner everywhere else, playing race fans and the media with a cheeky brashness he knew was part of the show. “I’m bigger than Beckham,” he boasted, and once told a reporter, “I do feel like I light up a room.” He had a British accent, an enviable head of highlighted hair, and a good-ol’-boy sensibility he’d soaked up during a decade in Florida.
“What made him more special than his driving was his stage presence,” Andretti says. “Sponsors loved him. Indy loved him. He did light up a room. He was a PR dream.”
Wheldon’s career — from the karts of his native U.K. to the brickyard of Indy — was powered by aggressive, fearless driving and a relentless need to prove himself. Though Indy drivers change allegiances often — seeking out faster cars, more skilled mechanics, sweeter deals — Wheldon’s team-hopping seemed more personal, a constant quest for validation. When he left Andretti after winning his first Indy 500, and only three years after joining as a rookie, it was the first time a driver had left a championship team in three decades. Wheldon did it solely to prove that he could win on his own — and even play the savior to a struggling team. “In racing,” Wheldon’s longtime manager Adrian Sussmann explains, “the question is always, ‘Is it the car or is it the driver?’ Dan wanted to prove it was the driver.”
In 1999, Wheldon arrived in the U.S. a nobody. His father, Clive, ran a successful plumbing outfit in Emberton, an hour north of London, and raced karts on the weekends. Dario Franchitti, the Scottish-born Indy racer who would later be a teammate and close friend, also raced in the kart circuit at the time. He was 11 when he first saw six-year-old Wheldon drive: “During breaks, Clive would put Dan in his kart. He was absolutely tiny, and he would tear around this track.”
Once Wheldon started winning, Clive gave up his own racing for his son’s, acting as mechanic, chauffeur, and cook as they traveled by van around the U.K. By 1996, Wheldon had graduated to cars, and though he had two rooms of trophies, his father didn’t have the $900,000 to buy a ride in Formula 3, a precursor to Formula One. So the 20-year-old Wheldon set out for Florida.
There, he joined Jon and Brad Baytos of Primus Racing, a top team in the F2000 Championship Series, a farm system for Indy. At that level, drivers usually pay their way, but Clive Wheldon cut a deal for his promising son: He would pay half the $200,000 for a Primus ride — and the Baytos brothers would keep any purses his son won. Though it put enormous pressure on the 20-year-old, the arrangement paid off. In his first year, Wheldon won the National Championship.
Jon Baytos recalls Wheldon as the hardest-working young driver he has known. “Dan was always on it,” he says. “He was diligent about training, research, communicating with engineers. Lots of kids — and I’ve had a stack of them — don’t do that. This was a huge investment for him and his family, and he wanted to make sure it paid off.”
But for all his success, the young driver was homesick. “Clive called me one day and said, ‘You got to take him out,’ ” says Jon Baytos. “So we taught him to drink.”
Soon, Wheldon and the Baytos brothers were regulars at St. Petersburg dives. With a bellyful of rum and Coke, Wheldon would get behind the bar “and do his Tom Cruise–in–Cocktail routine,” Baytos says. “The result was a lot of bottles on the floor.”
One night when they were out drinking, Wheldon had had enough, so he went out to the car, rolled down the windows, and went to sleep. A while later he returned to the bar, saying he’d been robbed of his wallet. “We chased the guy six blocks and got it,” Baytos recalls. “Dan had to get that wallet. It had all of Clive’s credit cards in there.”
Wheldon stayed with the Baytos brothers a single season, and with his winning record paving the way, he moved up the ranks. By 2002, he was begging Sussmann to get him a sponsored Indy ride.
He got him one of the best. At the time, Michael Andretti needed a rookie to replace him on his Andretti Green team when he retired from driving. Though rookies are given every opportunity to win races (they rarely do), dues need to be paid. While his teammates — Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and Bryan Herta — spent the winter at their vacation homes, Wheldon was on the track, testing AGR’s new Hondas.
Wheldon quickly latched on to the Brazilian Kanaan as a mentor. Wheldon was a fast learner — perhaps too fast. Franchitti warmly dubbed him “the little brother we never wanted.” In his first season, Wheldon won Rookie of the Year. The following year, he and Kanaan were racing in the Indy Japan 300 and Wheldon was struggling with the course. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t nail the corner on turn three, so he asked Kanaan for advice. “I took him over and showed him how to do it,” Kanaan says. “He was using the brake and I wasn’t. The next day, he put it on the pole and beat me.” Wheldon also won the race, his first victory for Team Andretti, offering a first glimpse of the greatness to come. Wheldon had a natural touch, a strategic brain, and the balls to keep his foot on the gas regardless of the danger around him. “He was a very self-confident rookie,” Herta remembers. “He knew how good he was before any of us did. Over time we came to understand the guy was a very special talent. It wasn’t clear yet. It was more, ‘Jeez, who is this cocky kid?’”
Drivers will say that anyone can win, but landing and keeping sponsors makes a winner. Wheldon’s second-biggest asset was his personality. “Dan was brilliant at schmoozing,” Sussmann says, “brilliant with a microphone in front of thousands of people.”
Wheldon was assigned a marketing specialist who oversaw the Jim Beam account. A pastor’s daughter from North Carolina, Susie Behm made sure the Jim Beam signage looked right, got Wheldon to the events on time, and kept an eye on him. “Her job was to try to keep Dan under control,” says Sussmann, “which was pretty impossible back then.” The two were soon inseparable, and Wheldon came to rely on her as he stretched out in his new role as spokesman.
Wheldon eventually hired Behm to work for him. As his personal assistant, her duties were wide ranging: She set up his media and business meetings and mothered him on the track, making sure his helmet fit, his shoes were clean, that he got to and from the pits on time. Wheldon had a string of girls at the time, including a sports newscaster. “He’d have one girl on one side of the track, one girl in the pits, another girl in the VIP box,” says photographer Michael Voorhees. “And Susie made sure they never ran into each other.”
It wasn’t until another driver asked Behm out that he came around. “It was pretty obvious to everyone that it was a more than a professional relationship,” Sussmann says.
Wheldon was in good company on the track as well: The drivers of the Andretti Green team — Wheldon, Franchitti, Kanaan, and Herta — became known as the Fab Four for their driving and their camaraderie. They teased Wheldon, who kept 350 pairs of all-white shoes and sneakers in their boxes, for his fastidiousness. He freaked out when someone touched his helmet with dirty hands. One time, before a race, as other drivers were walking to the pit, Voorhees spotted Wheldon in his trailer. He was in full uniform, wiping down the counter with paper towels and Formula 409. Voorhees asked what he was doing. “He said, ‘No way can I go out and race knowing this counter is dirty.’ ” The photographer snapped a photo and posted copies around the infield trailers with the tagline “Wheldon’s cleaning services. We are so anal, your ass will pucker.”
“A lot of drivers are so quick-twitch in personality because they have to concentrate and make tiny movements to the car,” Voorhees says. “A lot of them are meticulous, but Dan took it to a whole other level.”
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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.”
To finish reading The Fast Life & Fiery Death of Racing’s Brightest Star, click here.
One of the first things Wheldon did the day he died was to call Scott Dixon around 7 AM to tell him about his new tattoo. The two had become close despite their rivalry — or perhaps because of it — and their wives often hung out in each other’s RVs during races. When they saw each other at the prerace meeting later that day, Dixon inspected the handiwork. “I said, ‘Dude, that’s gonna annoy the shit out of you when you’re sweating in the car,’ ” Dixon recalls. “He said it hurt a little bit, but he was superexcited about it.”
Wheldon was less sanguine about the race. He and other drivers had not failed to notice that the race was shaping up to be a dangerous shit show. With a crowded field and cars running in packs on banked turns, the potential for smashups was high. “Dan was concerned like everybody else,” says former Indy driver Adrián Fernández, who visited his trailer before the race. But Wheldon’s prerace cockpit broadcast for ABC was full-on enthusiasm. He was practically breathless as he noted he’d soon be driving 222 miles per hour. “This is going to be a spectacle,” he said into the microphone as he sped through the pace laps.
Minutes later, he was dead.
Wheldon managed to pass 10 cars in less than two minutes, but there was no getting around the chain reaction that unfolded in front of him on the 11th lap. Moving at nearly a football field per second, Wheldon’s right tire struck the rear tire of another car and he was catapulted 108 yards through the air, a fireball smashing into the catch fence and sliding down toward the infield.
Shortly after the accident, the infield was a scene of mourning, with drivers crying openly. “He was a friend of all of ours,” Danica Patrick said in a whisper. “I just feel for his family.” Dario Franchitti was so distraught that he couldn’t get out of his car.
Critics have blasted Randy Bernard and IndyCar for allowing more cars on the track than was safe — especially on a banked one where a less experienced driver could hit speeds beyond his control — and for enticing Wheldon with the bonus money. But Dixon and others insist that the stunt played no part in their friend’s death, noting Wheldon worked with Bernard on the idea and would have raced that day if only a dollar was at stake.
“It bugs the heck out of me, people making these comments,” Andretti says. “Every driver that straps himself in knows the danger of what they’re dealing with and the consequences. Dan would be really upset at that.”
In December, IndyCar officials released the results of their investigation into the crash. They cited a “perfect storm” of factors, including “track geometry . . . [that] not only allowed for increased probability for car-to-car contact but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers.” The report concluded that while the accident could have happened at any time and on any track, “the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at Las Vegas Motor Speedway . . . appears to have been causal to this incident.”
The report said that Wheldon’s car was traveling 165 miles per hour when he went airborne, and that he suffered an “unsurvivable injury” when he was struck in the head by a pole that was part of the catch fence.
In the meantime, racers are asking pointed questions. “These stupid ovals, going wheel to wheel, they’re like missiles,” Brad Baytos says. “I don’t know why they have to go those speeds. On TV, you’re not gonna know if a car’s going 180 or 220. Sucks that something that bad has to happen to make changes. I’m devastated. It sucks he’s gone and I’ll never see him again.”
Wheldon himself had a fatalistic view of the sport he loved. “I never worry about death,” he once said. “No. If I go that way, then so be it — as long as I am leading.”
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