Meet Dan Wheldon

He’s tidy, he’s British, he owns 200 pairs of shoes—and he’s IndyCar’s best hope for keeping pace with NASCAR.

Editor’s Note: Somehow, despite his hailing from England, the loss of Dan Wheldon has hit our community close to home. For years now, we have felt especially attached to him. There are the two 500 wins, certainly—including this past edition’s dramatic and improbable finish—but it was his warmth and humor that made him a favorite with fans and media alike. Once, in July 2007, he even invited us in to his home, letting us showcase his condo in our pages.

As a tribute to his all-too-short life, we offer our May 2005 profile, published in the same month he first won our race. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the IRL and to his family.

It’s the first race of the 2005 IRL season, and Bruce James needs a new hat. The Boca Raton racing fanatic has decided it’s time to replace his ratty beige Kyle Petty NASCAR ball cap. He wants to break in some IndyCar headgear in support of one of the drivers he’s come to Homestead-Miami Speedway to watch. Trouble is, he can’t decide which lid to buy. “I just don’t latch on to any particular driver,” he says.

James considers himself a hardcore racing fan, fancying the stock cars above all, but with an active enthusiasm for the open-wheelers. He grew up idolizing Richard Petty, and at first glance, could pass for one of the King’s kinsmen: slight build, prominent cheekbones, graying brown mustache and goatee, long brown mullet, and, of course, the dark plastic shades. With a wide grin and a Southern drawl, he’s your prototypical American race-goer—the kind who’s made NASCAR one of the country’s highest-grossing sports, the kind the IRL would kill to attract in greater numbers, the kind, really, the IRL deserves. It’s the IRL, after all, that has the faster machines. And the older tradition. Why should NASCAR get all the love?

If you ask James, it’s because the IRL is “hard to follow for the average fan. The cars they run don’t look like the cars we have at home.” Its drivers aren’t exactly stock, either. While NASCAR’s faces are almost exclusively white American guys, half the IRL roster hails from other continents, coming from Brazil, Scotland, Japan, Australia and the Czech Republic. Having failed to connect with these unfamiliar faces, James has all but resolved to settle for a generic IRL hat. Except … “I’m just starting to follow Dan Wheldon.”

Dan Wheldon? You mean the boy-faced, twentysomething Brit with gel-spiked hair and a penchant for high-style shoes and designer clothes? The same man who, when recently asked by Men’s Fitness magazine how long it takes him to change a tire, replied, “I don’t like to get my hands dirty”? Standing here in a tank top, shorts and sandals, James would be hard-pressed to picture his hero Petty with clean, manicured hands. So where’s the connection?

“I don’t know,” James says. “He’s been winning.”

Wheldon’s on-track success may be the only Petty-esque thing about the young Englishman. He snagged the 2003 IRL IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year award, and last year, in his first complete season, posted three wins and 12 top-four finishes en route to being the championship runner-up. That’s not to say the IRL hasn’t had bigger winners. Sam Hornish Jr. won back-to-back series championships in 2001 and 2002. In those same two years, Brazilian favorite Helio Castroneves took consecutive checkered flags at the Indy 500. But neither driver has been able to carry the league to prominence.

Wheldon could be the man. He combines Hornish’s youth with Castroneves’ gregariousness, and the mix has put him front and center in the league’s driver-marketing campaign—an attempt to make IRL personalities more competitive with the Jeff Gordons and Dale Earnhardt Jrs. of the world in the bid for TV revenue and race-attendance dollars. At the moment, that arena seems to be NASCAR’s exclusive domain. Last year, IRL IndyCar races averaged a 0.8 TV rating, coming in well under not only Nextel (formerly Winston) Cup, but also NASCAR’s two minor series, Busch and Craftsman Trucks—the three of which, combined, averaged a 4.9 rating in 2004. IRL officials hope that getting their drivers’ personalities more ink and airtime will attract more disciples—and their dollars—particularly in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

“I am who I am, whether I like it or not,” Wheldon says. “You can like it, or lump it.”

“Fans come to root, not just to watch,” says IRL senior vice president of business affairs Ken Ungar. “So we’re connecting fans with drivers in a way that enables them to understand their personalities and identify with them.” Ungar says the best way to build that connection is to show the public what makes a driver tick. But to date, the league’s most-noticed efforts have been more titillating than incisive: To herald the 2005 season, the IRL ran magazine ads featuring 22-year-old rookie Danica Patrick clad in black leather pants and a tight-fitting top alongside the slogan “We heard you like to watch.”

Wheldon’s newsstand efforts haven’t delved much deeper. He appeared in the January 2005 Maxim in an instructional article on the art of donut-doing: “I like to face the crowd and catch the eye of the hottest girl before I start my run,” he says in the piece. He followed that up with the Men’s Fitness interview. When asked the average time it takes him to pick up a “chick,” Wheldon replied, “Especially with my British accent, 15 to 20 minutes max, and I will have a phone number.”

“Wheldon’s a hard-charger on the track and a party guy off the track,” Ungar says. “He’s young, hip, stylish and cosmopolitan.” And as for the elusive 18-to-34-year-old demographic the IRL is so desperately reaching out to, Ungar says, “He is the demographic.”

Well, he is, and he isn’t. An unattached 26-year-old who craves speed and excitement both behind the wheel and in his single-guy lifestyle, Wheldon enjoys going out, tossing back a couple bourbons with Red Bull, fraternizing with women and hanging out with friends. He takes great care with his appearance (always dapper), the clothes he wears (always designer) and the way his hair is styled (always done up with gel). At this point in his life, he’s also coming to grips with who he is professionally, working as hard as he plays, focusing on proving himself to his more-experienced peers and mapping out a goal-based path through his volatile and competitive chosen field.

But for all of Wheldon’s similarities to your typical career-minded young metrosexual, there are also distinct points of disconnect. First off, Wheldon’s British. And while his accent may win him points with the opposite sex, it doesn’t do much to help young American guys—at least straight young American guys—identify with him. It also does little to combat the stigma that, compared to NASCAR—populist and blue-collar—open-wheel racing is elitist, blueblood (never mind that each of the top 30 NASCAR drivers made more in 2004 than the $2.69 million pulled in by top-earning IndyCar driver Buddy Rice).

Even more significant may be the idiosyncrasies of Wheldon’s lifestyle. That he pulled in a cool $1.6 million last year doesn’t separate him from any other role model/athlete—Jeff Gordon netted that much in his first two races this year. But the average racing fan may have trouble relating to the way Wheldon spends his money. Dale Earn-hardt Jr. lists his hobbies as online gaming, music and hunting. Tony Stewart enjoys shooting pool, bowling, fishing and video-gaming. Wheldon, by contrast, follows fashion. He spends much of his spare time shopping lavish boutiques in L.A. or New York for “funky stuff” to add to his extensive wardrobe. He wears $200 Italian jeans, owns more than 200 pairs of shoes, collects $5,000-to-$10,000 Panerai Italian watches and has a double-wide trailer’s worth of combined closet space in his two houses in Indy and St. Petersburg, Florida. “That’s what I’m into,” Wheldon says. “I am who I am, whether I like it or not. You can like it or lump it.” The rock-star attitude, along with the nightclub looks, doesn’t just distance him from many of his more-popular NASCAR cousins; it makes him stand out even among his IRL comrades.

Consider: At 3:30 p.m. the day before the Miami race, the IRL drivers assemble behind their garages and sit, Sharpies in hand, at a row of tables for the league’s mandatory hour-long autograph session. Wearing race caps, casual pants or jeans, and team shirts, they sign driver cards or anything the gathering line of 200 or so fans puts in front of them. But as the line of signature-seekers starts to move, the first chair is vacant. Wheldon is late.

His people say he’s been having issues with his car, and his meeting with his engineers has simply run long. Finally, about 15 minutes after the session starts, Wheldon appears, walking briskly but conspicuously down the line to take his place. The fans don’t seem put off by the prima-donna entrance. On the contrary, if all the head-swiveling is any indication, they’re drawn to him. He wears no hat, and the breeze disturbs his spiked, highlighted blond hair. His face is clean-shaven, with inch-wide sideburns trimmed neatly to the bottom of his ears. He’s wearing about $2,000 in “casual” apparel—Kaenon sunglasses, tight-fitting black Andretti Green Team Racing shirt, charcoal-gray Armani slacks, black leather belt, and black-and-silver Puma sneakers. Awaiting him is a group of some 50 fans and a 10-person entourage, including a few marketing representatives from one of his primary sponsors, Jim Beam, and his right-hand woman, the tall, young, blond and attractive Susie Behm.

Behm is a rep from Keystone Sports and Event Marketing Company, which represents Jim Beam Racing. It’s part of her job to market Wheldon. At this moment that involves assisting the flirtatious Brit with his autographs. Every time a fan proffers a T-shirt, Wheldon calls for Behm, beckoning her to stretch out the shirt while he applies his flamboyant signature—in which the wide swooping first leg of the “W” alone dwarfs the entire names of some other drivers who’ve signed. When Behm is temporarily distracted by outside conversation, Wheldon turns down the offers of aid from a male assistant, preferring instead to interrupt his girl Friday. She accepts her role in this little game with a smile. The two are pals. But in her professional opinion: “He appeals to everybody because he’s so charismatic. They love him because he’s personable. He’s like an old friend—he always remembers a face. And I’m sure the accent helps.”

The observations could be dismissed as so much marketing-rep rhetoric were it not for the fact that they are being played out as Behm speaks. Thirty minutes into the autograph session, the other drivers have folded their tables and left due to lack of interest, but Wheldon’s line is getting longer. He treats every fan as if they’ve met before. Little boys get a “Hey, bud.” Good ol’ boys get razzed for wearing NASCAR gear. And women of all ages get a bright smile—or, if they’re so inclined, a kiss.

Among the latter are the Sudik sisters of Philadelphia. The sibling trio consists of second-generation IRL fans Lynn, 16; Andrea, 22; and Theresa, who turns 25 today. All three wear black tank tops with “Dan Wheldon” spelled out in red and white sequins. Holding a shirt that reads “Kiss me, it’s my birthday,” Theresa approaches Wheldon and says, “Remember us? We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to you last year in Richmond.” Wheldon obliges with a hug and kiss. Delighted, the sisters request an autograph for their friend Stephanie.

“Stephanie,” says Wheldon, as he scrawls on his likeness. “S-T-E-F …”

“No,” say the sisters as one. “S-T-E-P-H.”

“Oh, no worries,” Wheldon says, loosing a sly grin and raising his right eyebrow as he lets the card fly in his best David Letterman impression. The sisters giggle and are once again ecstatic. Moments later, a still-giddy Theresa lets it be known why Wheldon is her favorite: “He’s from England, and he’s hot!”

When Wheldon’s full hour is up, there is still a group of about 20 fans in line. He takes the time to acknowledge and sign items for each one, still scrawling salutations as he rises and pulls himself away.

Though this charisma seems to ooze naturally from Wheldon, it actually reflects a fairly recent development in his character, a sign that the young driver is just now growing into his own fire suit. In fact, his good friend Bryan Herta says that when he first met Wheldon in 2003, his rookie year, he was almost a photo negative of what you now see. “When I met him, I thought he was kind of a jerk,” says Herta, who is now Wheldon’s Andretti Green teammate. “He came off a little bit arrogant. He seemed more focused on himself.” But as a veteran of the racing world, Herta understood. “When you first come into the sport, there’s no handbook. There’s a lot of pressure on you, and you don’t know who you can trust.” Wheldon remembers: “I did keep to myself. I didn’t want to tread on anybody’s toes. I had to prove myself.” Then he adds, “I’m not the kind of guy that forces himself upon people. I’m not going to kiss your ass.”

The rapid success may have tempted another up-and-comer to try his hand at the bigger bucks and fanfare of NASCAR, but Wheldon wasn’t interested.

Wheldon came to the IRL at the tail end of the 2002 season. At age 23, he’d been a test driver for Panther Racing until the owners brought him in to race in the final two events of the year. The promotion was the latest in a career that began with competitive go-cart racing in England at age 4. After a rapid ascent from carting to various levels of open-wheel, Wheldon moved to the States in 1999 and proceeded to take the U.S. Ford Formula 2000 Championship with six wins and the series’ Rookie of the Year award. Two years later he took the top rookie title in the Indy Lights series, winning the Bosch Platinum Speedway award for the most points in oval races. That accomplishment, he says, is what got the attention of IRL owners and led to his advancement the following year. In 2003, he was named the third driver for Andretti Green, inheriting the retiring Michael Andretti’s ride. From that seat, he drove to nine top-10 finishes and was once again named Rookie of the Year.

The rapid success may have tempted another up-and-comer to try his hand at the bigger bucks and fanfare of NASCAR, but Wheldon wasn’t interested. “Open-wheel is what I love,” he says. “And to be honest, the biggest thing in racing for me is the Indy 500.” Kissing the bricks and sipping a cool carafe of skim milk after a 500 win is Wheldon’s primary career goal, eclipsing even an IRL championship. He grew up hearing about the great Brickyard race, and in 1999, his teammate’s father, racer Mark Dismore, invited Wheldon to watch him compete there. Wheldon was instantly drawn to the festival-like atmosphere, the history of the Speedway and its crown-jewel race. Yet that was nothing compared to the exhilaration of competing there himself, which he got to do in 2003. “It was so intense, like a complete month of controlled adrenaline rush,” he says. That year in practice, he recorded the fastest lap speed (232.202 m.p.h.) at Indy since 1996. He qualified fifth, but finished 19th. Last year, he led 26 laps en route to a third-place finish.

But even his almost-instant IRL success couldn’t spare Wheldon the rookie treatment from his older Andretti Green teammates: Herta, 35; Tony Kanaan, 30; and Dario Franchitti, 32. Even in his second year they considered him, as Herta puts it, the “little brother who’s always just happy to go along.”

Given his obsession with fashion and his compulsion for tidiness, Wheldon was an easy mark for hazing. Last year at the race in Montegi, Japan, Wheldon’s teammates snuck into his hotel room, snagged one of each of the four pairs of shoes he’d brought and shipped them back to the States, leaving him with a mix-match ensemble of footwear. Worse, they shut off the water and drained the toilet, urinated (or worse) into the toilet, blocked off the window with his mattress, and cranked the heat. When he returned to the hotel, the self-professed neat-freak walked in to find a sweltering, rank sty of a room. His retaliation: “I kicked their asses in the race. They figured out that maybe they shouldn’t do that anymore.” Montegi was his first career IRL win.

If Wheldon’s teammates hadn’t figured it out by the end of his wildly successful 2004 campaign, they surely heard it on ESPN after the 2005 Homestead race. Standing in victory lane, kissing actress Tara Reid—of American Pie and Van Wilder fame—and pumping his fist in the air, Wheldon said for the camera what his runaway victory had already communicated on the track. He told reporters, fans, teammates and rivals alike, “I’m not a rookie anymore.”

In addition to flashing his new, more comfortable and outgoing public persona before and after the race, Wheldon put on a clinic during the run as he routed the field by 3.694 seconds. The win was a testament to tenacity and patience accrued through experience. Wheldon had been displeased with his car since a disappointing 11th-place qualifying run earlier in the week, and had requested a series of tweaks to get the machine up to a speed at which he felt it could win. Indeed, as soon as the green flag fell, it was apparent that the Brit and his crew had found the right configuration. By lap 20, he was in the lead, slowly pulling away from the field. Every time a caution or a sub-par pit stop reined him back into the fold, he’d gradually pull away again, putting two to three seconds between his car and the rest. By lap 135, reporters and fans were paying more attention to the battle for second.

When an eight-car wreck took out the next-fastest car—that of pole-sitter Tomas Scheckter—on lap 159, Wheldon’s win seemed academic. Minutes later, after a quick victory lap, he was grating his tires on the pavement, spinning donuts as he repeatedly raised an open palm into the air, beseeching the crowd to cheer louder over his roaring engine. But after the race, at the climax of what felt like a coming-out party for the sophomore who just might be the next IRL champion, Wheldon put the win in perspective. “It’s just one race,” he said. “Sixteen more to go.” And as he reminded everyone in his post-race press conference, “This was a fantastic way to start the season, but my passion and my focus is on the Indianapolis 500. That’s what it’s all about.”

Of course, these days NASCAR casts a long shadow over the great American race and the league it’s spawned. Even on the IRL’s opening day in Miami, as the stock cars idled during an off-week between races, the shadow hovered. To see it the drivers had only to look in the stands and on the concourse as race fans left the track: everywhere, NASCAR hats, shirts and jackets, emblazoned with the names and numbers of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even Junior’s father, dead and buried four years, seemed to have more T-shirts in the crowd than the entire Andretti Green team combined. The only prevalent IRL attire was a flood of bright-red Penske Racing ball caps that had been given away as part of an ad promotion.

When asked, a good number of the spectators wearing those caps admitted that while they enjoy the IRL, it’s the stock cars that have their hearts. In that sentiment, those fans are like David Brown and John Mesa of Okeechobee, Florida. Leaving the Homestead infield after being guests of Marlboro, these NASCAR fans said they had a good time watching the faster IRL cars. Following the name Andretti, they even found themselves rooting for Wheldon to win. But as Mesa pointed out: “If Wheldon were to walk up to me right now, I wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

Heading back to Miami on Florida’s Turnpike, the IRL drivers no doubt saw NASCAR’s dominance for themselves—if they looked out their windows to see all the windshield decals of Earnhardt’s number 3. Castroneves’ car happens to bear the same number, but everyone—even racing illiterates—knows that it will always belong to The Intimidator.

Wheldon, Ungar and the IRL are confident that their product can be competitive in the hearts and minds of fans, and they say it’s better racing than NASCAR. The IRL is faster (220 m.p.h. compared to NASCAR’s 180), and the racing is closer, with margins of victory often measured in hundredths of a second rather than seconds. Ungar also points out that the IRL offers some of the most advanced race-bred technology in the sport, from the revolutionary Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier System, which protects drivers and fans, to the earpiece accel-erometer, which measures G-forces on drivers’ bodies. And Ungar and Wheldon are quick to note that their league is built on the mystique and history surrounding the Indy 500, which is almost twice as old as its Daytona counterpart. To the IRL’s boosters, catching up with the stock cars is simply a matter of exposure.

“It will come in time,” Wheldon says. “I think it will take time because we’re not household names like Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. That’s not necessarily our fault; perhaps it’s the fault of the series we’re in. We haven’t been around as long as NASCAR, but I really think we’re starting to reach that point.” Wheldon argues that after 10 years, the IRL’s roster of drivers is starting to stabilize, which means that fans can follow their favorites year after year. That, he says, can only strengthen the league’s relationship with the public.

His good friend Bryan Herta says, “He’s a fun guy, and he’s got an energy and enthusiasm that people are drawn to.”

However, though the IRL itself is still a fledgling series, its history—nearly a century of open-wheel racing—seems at times to be its biggest obstacle. Ratings and revenue suggest that Americans connect more with a sport originated by moonshiners running on beaches than one started by wealthy car manufacturers who were merely testing expensive toys. “It’s a rich man’s race,” says IRL fan Andy Shapiro of Ft. Lauderdale. “There aren’t as many rednecks at these races.”

In that case, what’s a brash young British dandy to do? His fellow drivers seem to think the key is Wheldon’s blend of youth, success and outgoingness. “I think the neat-freak and clotheshorse tags are just quirks in his personality,” Herta says. “It’s not really who he is. He’s a fun guy, and he’s got an energy and enthusiasm that people are drawn to.”

Rival racer and fellow Brit Darren Manning of Target Chip Ganassi Racing takes that sentiment further. Manning suggests that as Wheldon establishes himself, he could let his guard down and give the public a chance to see that beneath the designer clothes and the English accent, he’s a regular guy. “I know Dan goes out and likes hanging out with his mates,” Manning says. “Maybe he and the IRL could do a better job of getting that across.”

Manning and Ungar believe that the international flavor Wheldon and his IRL comrades bring should be viewed as a marketing asset rather than liability. As Manning points out, in a series with drivers from all over the globe, the champion is a true world champion. Ungar adds that the United Nations–like lineup of drivers can appeal to Americans because it reflects their nation’s diversity. That, of course, seems like wishful thinking. The TV ratings and revenues of the “international” IRL are, compared to those of NASCAR and the NFL—the most America-centric sports league of them all—nothing if not anemic.

Wheldon isn’t sure if he’s the answer, but he certainly isn’t trying to suppress his accent or tone down his extravagant lifestyle. He harbors no jealousy of Earnhardt Jr. or other drivers getting the lion’s share of fan attention. “I don’t get in a twist over that sort of stuff,” he says. “To be quite honest, I really don’t give a shit.” But the I’m-hip-and-who-cares attitude notwithstanding, Wheldon is putting himself out there: giving interviews, smiling for glamour photo shoots and plugging his sponsors, his league and its signature race at every opportunity.

Those opportunities increase with each trip to victory lane—a place he’s visiting with more and more frequency. On April 3, he edged out Kanaan to win the third race of the 2005 season on the street track in St. Petersburg, taking the first non-oval event in IRL history. Wheldon hopes to hoist many more trophies above his head. IRL hopes he can boost the league along the way.

Photo by Michael Voorhees.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue.

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Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.