Rehagen on Wheldon: The Champ I Remember

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Dan Wheldon was going to save IndyCar. That was the premise with which I set out to write an early-season profile of the Brit in the spring of 2005. He was 26, dapper, handsome, and quotable in a sneering, “like-it-or-lump-it” attitude that seemed about as sincere as his insistence that he only drank Red Bull and Jim Beam, his sponsor. He was coming off his first full season, having won three races and finished second in points, and sitting at a table in the back of his trailer for an interview the night before the first race in Homestead, hair spiked stiff, slacks immaculately pressed. He flashed a snaggle-toothed grin and agreed that, “Yeah, a good piece is exactly what the sport needs,” to get fans on board.

Wheldon went on to back up the bluster with six checkered flags that year. But the only one that mattered was Indy, a career goal that eclipsed all others, including a series championship, which he took months later. When it was Danica who became the first IndyCar driver in nearly 20 years to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated after her historic fourth-place 500 finish, Wheldon tried to play it off, wearing a T-shirt that read, “I actually WON the 500”—another fashion statement that might have betrayed the young man wearing it.

The next year, Wheldon cashed in. I spotted him strutting around the pits during spring practice in Homestead in a new fire suit, flashing the Target logo of super-team Ganassi. His hair seemed to be spiked higher and he had had his teeth fixed and capped—gleaming whites that, I overheard photographers snicker, must’ve glowed in the dark. He continued to succeed, finishing even with Sam Hornish in points, losing the championship only by a tie-breaking deficit in wins. However, despite his on-track success, rumors of Wheldon’s brash nature creating discord between him and his crew and his owner permeated the paddock, and after only two seasons, Wheldon was unceremoniously dropped by Ganassi in favor of the new king, Dario Franchitti, who emerged to win three straight IndyCar series titles for Team Target. Meanwhile, Wheldon tried to make do with a third-tier Panther team, a Brit driving the American National Guard car, with nary a win, despite finishing second in back-to-back Brickyards, before being sacked again amid whispers of disharmony.

In 2011, Wheldon was without a ride. But rather than pout on the sidelines, race fans could see and hear him on IndyCar TV broadcasts and local radio. He still flashed the confident smile, but the sneer was gone and he seemed to have abandoned his one-liners for thoughtful questions and comments with his once-fellow drivers. Then in May, Wheldon announced that he had scored a one-shot ride for his beloved 500 through Bryan Herta, an old friend and teammate from the glory days of 2005. Listening to the radio in my driveway, I barely heard his name until the end, when the rookie JR Hildebrand got up in the marbles on Turn 4 and hit the wall. The announcers’ shock left broken statements and silence strung along the airwaves until they gathered themselves and checked the monitors to dust off the name “Wheldon,” who had passed the wrecked 23-year-old and crossed the yard of bricks to lead his only lap of the race. As he accepted the wreath of roses, Wheldon was gracious to the young Hildebrand, the caterwauling of 2005 replaced with tears of humility.

Suddenly, Wheldon was back. Legacy as a two-time Borg-Warner winner set in sterling silver, a wiser Wheldon returned to help usher the sport into the future—by year’s end he had signed with Andretti for 2012. As if to give us a taste, he announced he would drive in the 2011 finale in Las Vegas. And then just as suddenly, he was gone.

But after the 500, even though he still had no ride, no team, Wheldon was still driving. While his former colleagues competed in front of thousands of fans all over the world, the dapper Brit was turning laps in front of empty grandstands and vacant press boxes testing the new 2012 IndyCar chassis and its many new safety features, one of which was a bar that went over the wheels that would prevent cars from leaving the pavement—as Wheldon’s did during his fatal wreck. With no fanfare, the future of his own career uncertain, Dan Wheldon was quietly still trying to save IndyCar.

 

Tony Rehagen is a former Indianapolis Monthly Staff Writer and Senior Editor. He covered the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing for several years, and in 2005 wrote what remains the definitive early profile of Dan Wheldon for IM. He currently writes for Atlanta Magazine.

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