Dan Wheldon became a full time Indy car driver in 2003 at age 25. I was 10 about to turn 11. Wheldon had just signed to run for what is now Andretti Autosport and was running for rookie of the year replacing his car owner Michael Andretti.
I remember seeing a young British man who was brash, yet had a smile and seemed like an all around nice guy. I wasn't a fan nonetheless. He was a pretty boy Kyle Busch to me.
Wheldon won rookie of the year despite not even having a podium finish. I didn't know what to think of him.
But after 2003 he showed not just myself but the world what kind of special driver he really was.
In 2004 he won three races, his worst finish was 18th and finished second in points behind teammate Tony Kanaan.
In 2005 Wheldon won a then record six races including the Indy 500 and won the series championship.
After all this success with Andretti Autosport, Wheldon decided to go to Chip Ganassi racing. A move that I questioned. How could you be so successful with a team and leave them? Wheldon wanted more, he wanted to be with the best.
Wheldon won two races a season the three seasons that he was with Ganassi Never finishing lower than fourth in points. His first season with them his worst finish was 13th when he tied with Sam Hornish Jr for the championship. Hornish won the tiebreaker based on wins.
Wheldon was yet being out performed by his teammate Scott Dixon, especially on road and street courses. When he found out Ganassi was trying to bring his former teammate Tony Kanaan to the team to possibly replace him, hurt Whedlon left for the team that he raced for during his first two starts. Panther Racing.
Wheldon and panther Racing finish second in the Indy 500 two years in a row and finished tenth and ninth in points. But for a young champion that was hardly enough for him. And the team expected more. Panther Racing unfortunately let Wheldon go at the end of the season for rookie JR Hildebrand..
Here was a champion, an Indy 500 winner too, who had never finihsed worst than 11th in points and had 15 career wins, was out of a ride. Wheldon than decided to do whatever he could for a ride. And put something together for the Indy 500 with Bryan Herta.
What happened after shocked us all.
The team went out and had speed instantly. They were contenders all day in the race. Last lap rookie Hildebrand was leading in Wheldon's former car when trying to pass a lapped car slammed the turn four wall. Wheldon in second (no one really knew he had made it to second) passed Hildebrand and won his second Indy 500 and his 16th win in the Indy racing league.
Wheldon was in tears in victory lane. A young man with a full time ride had just joined the list of multiple Indy 500 winners.
Wheldon than went into the TV booth. Everyone was impressed by the job he did commentating. It was almost certain that when his driving days were officially over that he would be a full time play by play commentator.
But his driving days were not over.
Wheldon allowed by a rule change to compete for $5 million that would be spilt by him, and a fan if he won at Las Vegas. He would team up with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
Wheldon raced at Kentucky and finished 14th. He went on to Las Vegas where he started 34th. But he didn't care. He was in race car and racing against his buddies. He was having fun.
Wheldon by lap 11 was up to 24th when what everyone saw happening had happened. A big one. Wheldon was in it. Intitally everyone thought it was just going to stall the race and everyone was okay. But Paul Tracy made us this otherwise when he revealed that there were two doctors around Wheldon and that we should pray for him.
We all started praying worrying. And after hours we got what we all had feared. Dan Wheldon was announced dead. It was later revealed that it was due to head trauma.
The 19 drivers that were left ran a five lap tribute to the young british man who gave his life to racing.
Drivers from Dario Francittii, Tony Kanaan (who were former teammates and more than likely the closest to Wheldon), to Danica Patrick who didnt always get along with Wheldon, but ultimately became friends with him were tears that one of the best open wheel drivers of the last twenty years was dead.
Wheldon was going to replace a departing Patrick in the 7 car and be Godaddy's new guy in the Indycar racing league. He was going to win more races and championships with no doubt.
But within one lap things changed forever.
The whole racing community mourned the loss of Wheldon. From NASCAR, Formula One, road racing, V8 cars and etc.
I watched Wheldon race since I was ten. I watched him growing up. I already stated I wasn't a fan. But when he went to Panther and I saw how he wans't as competitive and still had a great attitude I was impressed. I saw him get married and have kids I saw the maturity. He had changed from that brash British 25 year old kid, to a 33 year old man with a family. I was impressed with how he handled himself when he had no ride. He didn't cry or whine, he waited. I was impressed with how he handled himself after beating the team who dumped with having nothing bad to say about them.
He was a class act.
It was hard to see Dale Earnhardt a man I watched growing up in the 90s too die. It was just as hard to see Dan Wheldon die. I never met him, but it felt like I knew him. And I will miss him
Everyone will. Rest in Peace Dan.