LAS VEGAS - SEPTEMBER 13: Dan Wheldon of England driver of the #77 Sam Schmidt Racing Dallara Honda during practice for the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship on September 13, 2011 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Left standing alone without a ride when the silly season music stopped, Dan Wheldon must be given credit for retooling, refocusing and quite simply, throwing a huge roll of the dice in signing with Bryan Herta Autosport for the 2011 Indy 500.
After all, Herta's underfunded outfit had barely qualified for the last and final spot on the grid in 2010. But that trust and feeling of confidence with Herta was repaid in both directions in what was certainly one of the most fantastic finishes in the century of history at the Brickyard (cues NFL Films marching music.)
Through it all, the 2005 IndyCar series champion and now two-time Indy 500 winner has stood by both his instinct and conviction. And when the nine-time winner on a 1.5 mile oval says he has a chance to win the GoDaddy Challenge, you are simply compelled to believe him.
I caught up with the eminently quotable 33-year old native of Emberton, UK via phone from Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon, where he was on a media blitz for the IZOD IndyCar World Championships.
Q: I remember how composed you were making the Bryan Herta announcement at St Pete and wondered, how does he really believe that team is going to have a chance to even MAKE the race, much less win it...
Call me crazy, but I've known Bryan Herta for a long time; both as a teammate and a friend. I knew he would do everything in his power to give me a fast car
It was one of those things where I was comfortable and confident in the decision I made. It was a case of the race playing out for you...perhaps a little differently than some might have planned.
Q - And despite your comments that you were a free agent, you did honor your commitment to Bryan Herta Autosports and testing the new car as I'm sure there were some incoming phone calls?
Yes, it was important for me.
What helped me get in the position was what I did for the Indy 500 - that any decision I made was based on (potential) performance. It was about being in the right situation.
With no disrespect to the teams that called me (after Indy), I never felt that it was the right situation to be successful.
Q: Looking forward - up until a week ago you were the only one to drive the new 2012 IndyCar, what are your impressions?
I was most impressed with the way all the different manufacturers have worked together. Dallara and Honda and Firestone and AP (again names slew of companies without pause)....
When you put a bunch of manufacturers together sometimes that can get pulling in different directions. But here, everybody is so enthused with the program that you have none of that. They are all working together.
The car is definitely fun to drive.
It's faster, it's more agile, it's lighter, the engine sits lower, you have a lower center of gravity all of which contribute to (faster speeds.)
I've never had the chance to drive (one) before, but we've got the turbocharger now and I'm a huge fan of it.
The safety has been improved by over 30%, according to Dallara's numbers.
Q: Do you feel your approach as a driver has changed? What have you learned sitting back and watching, as well as commentating, this year? Has it made you hungrier?
I think through all of this it's given me a different perspective and understanding for (how it all) comes together. I've been involved in all the different aspects, the production and the commentary has given me an appreciation for what all these people do...it has made me a better person.
I really missed the competitive aspect the most. Indy was fantastic, the commentary was great, driving a 2012 car was (exciting) ...
But I think the competitive aspect is what I missed. The appreciation for that.
You put everything aside and just appreciate driving the car
Q: What were the discussions like with Randy Bernard when the idea of the Go Daddy challenge was first brought about?
Randy didn't pick me because he likes me personally, he picked me because of the media I generated after the Indy 500.
After Travis Pastrana got injured and Alex Zanardi and Kasey Kahne didn't work out, he was under a little pressure to continue his idea, because it had such a positive response from the fans. This was a great way to continue the idea.
The fans like the idea that the young lady selected from New Jersey (Ann Babenco of High Bridge, NJ) can honestly feel we have a chance to win the race.
I'm not naive where I think my brand is bigger than Travis Pastrana's, but I move the needle in a different way, so to speak.
And the other drivers respect me and trust me to be out there.
Q: I'd think it might be easy for an outside observer to dismiss as a marketing gimmick, but looking at the results over the years, drivers have had podium finishes starting from the back of the field...
From what I understand about the Vegas track, you can get to the front.
Our mindset is to win the race. We don't need to score points, we don't need to qualify well; we need to win the race. And everything we do in practice and setup to make the car faster is with that goal of winning the race.
Q: What do you think of this sort of bold marketing - it's certainly something that has been lacking in the series previously...
I think Randy Bernard has had some phenomenal ideas. This is certainly one.
I don't think you can dispute how competitive the on-track product is that IndyCar gives to its fans. But we need to be in the mainstream media...
We need to have that side of things covered as well, and Randy has given us access to that.
Q: You ARE going to be in Vegas, are you betting on yourself to pull it off?
(laughs) From what I understand, I don't think that its legal to bet on myself.
Honestly I feel I have a genuine shot to win the race.
I've done some things in my career that have been cool but I've never made someone an instant millionaire before...and I think that is cool.
Q: The big question - is Dan Wheldon going to be driving full-time in IndyCar next year?
I think we're looking very good for next year right now.
Having been in the situation that I was in going into this season, I'm not going to get to excited until a contract is signed, but it's looking good.