Following his tragic death at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, during the Las Vegas 300, the IndyCar paddock has been in mourning. Dan Wheldon was one of those drivers to whom racing cars was as natural as walking. A two-time Indy 500 winner, Wheldon’s talent will be sorely missed by the IZOD IndyCar World Championship, both as a competitor and as a character.
Daniel Clive Wheldon was born in 1978, in Emberton, a small village in Buckinghamshire, England. Like many racing drivers, Wheldon started early, taking up karting at the age of just four. The young Wheldon progressed through the junior ranks of motor racing throughout his school years, racing against, and often beating, British racer Jenson Button, who later went on to win the Formula One world championship, although the two racers were to take different paths in their racing careers.
Wheldon later reflected on his early career, saying, “Motor racing is all I’ve ever known. I just got the bug. It was not even like I knew I wanted to do something else.”
While his contemporaries opted to stay in the UK, Wheldon made the early decision to travel to the United States. Wheldon’s decision to leave his homeland, and come to a country where he was relatively unknown in the motor racing fraternity, was partly financially motivated. It was after failing to secure funding when competing in Formula Three, one of the stepping-stone categories to the more lucrative Formula One, that Wheldon was finally persuaded to up root and head across the Atlantic. In a business where expenses run high, from paying for travel, truck rental and accommodation, to buying the tires, fuel and parts for the cars, Wheldon didn’t want money to prevent his talent from getting noticed.
“All forms of motor racing in England were very expensive,” he later reflected, “and even between sponsors and my family we weren’t able to find the budget to race. I could have done F3 on a shoestring, but your career is pretty much over at that point.”
Wheldon arrived in America in 1999. A relatively unknown entity, he soon made a name for himself by winning the Formula Ford 2000 championship in his first year. A year later, he made his IndyCar debut with Panther Racing, switching to Andretti Green Racing for the next season, where he earned the title Rookie of the Year. By 2004, Wheldon had secured a reputation as a tenacious and fast racer, posting three victories and finishing second in the IndyCar Racing League (IRL) championship. It was the 2005 season, where Wheldon really made his name, though. With six victories, he took the title, and secured an Indy 500 win, becoming the first driver to win both the championship and the blue ribbon evetn since the IRL started in 1996. Wheldon also went on to win the Indy 500 in 2011, just months before he died, but IndyCars were not the only form of motor racing in which he competed. In 2006, he won the 24-hours of Daytona sports car title, in his second attempt.
Wheldon died during the final IndyCar race of the season – the Las Vegas 300 which took place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon had accepted that challenge of starting at the rear of the grid, in an attempt to take a $5 million prize if he went on to win the race. The accident occurred on the 11th lap, when Wheldon was launched into the catch fence during a 15-car pileup, resulting in his car, which he was driving for Sam Schmitdt Motorsports, bursting into flames. After being airlifted to hospital, Wheldon sadly died of his injuries and the race was stopped.
But Wheldon was only too aware of the dangers inherent in the sport, citing it as the main reason for his competing. He once said, “It’s the risk factor that makes it so appealing to me. You are driving on the limit, knowing if you go beyond it you could be history.”
In that sense, Wheldon was a true racer, drawn to a sport by the danger and exhilaration of driving at over 200 mph only inches away from other cars. Dan Wheldon leaves behind a wife, two sons, and a lasting legacy of one of the true, great racing drivers.