By: Allan Brewer, IndyCar Correspondent
- Indy 500 winner Wheldon reflections
- Herta, Wheldon & team IMS photo day
- Monday was busy day for Wheldon
Dan Wheldon Reflects On Emotional And Dramatic Indy 500 Win
Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon of Bryan Herta Autosports reflected on an emotional and dramatic victory in the 100th anniversary edition of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, overturning the trite and popular notion that only one of the big teams like Penske or Ganassi can win this monumental automobile race.
The pressure was on for the fledgling team, organized over the winter by team owner Bryan Herta for a one-off assault on the biggest prize in motorsport. Wheldon and Herta executed a terrific strategy that combined an initial attempt to outlast the competition with a savvy fuel-saving game plan that eventually yielded to balls to the wall press toward victory with the pedal pushed through the floorboard.
“On the radio with 20 laps to go, Brian said ‘You’ve got to go, and get everything out of the car you possibly can,’” said Wheldon. “He said there was one other car that was running in parallel with us at the time and was a real threat to win if we continued to conserve fuel.”
In time Wheldon would learn that sole adversary was none other than friend and former Andretti Autosports teammate Dario Franchitti, himself twice a champion at The Brickyard.
“I made a promise to move the weight jacker, adjust the bars and maximize everything I could,” to get maximum speed from the racecar, said Wheldon. “I didn’t have a problem with moving up through the field as I was catching cars easily.”
Despite his extreme speed and success at moving into contention, it still seemed unlikely that the Brit could achieve a win as rookie JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing cruised easily along with a four to five second gap going into the final half mile of the day. That is, until Hildebrand chose to go around a back marker (Charlie Kimball) on the outside of Turn 4 and found the marbles (round balls of spent rubber from worn tires) and began to slide into the concrete retaining wall that makes Indianapolis such an unforgiving mistress.
I love the track, and how the fans energize the Speedway.
“As I got through 3 and 4, out of the corner my eye, I saw him (Hildebrand) hit the fence,” said Wheldon of the bizarre chain of events that unfolded in the race’s closing notes. “I knew you have to make it to the yard of bricks going forward on four wheels, and then it was over and the tears began to come.”
Wheldon very nearly missed a chance to become a multiple time winner at The Speedway. After penning what looked like to be the final chapters in his IndyCar career at Panther in 2010, Wheldon had informally retired to his St Petersburg home and life as husband and father of two young boys.
It was at the urging of his family that he got back into the racing game, acknowledging that his wife nudged him gently into the cockpit where he deservedly belongs to remain at a minimum for several more years. As it turned out, the return would come at a special place and at a special time for both driver and race course.
“This is a very special track for me,” acknowledged Wheldon of the place where he won in 2005 while driving for Michael Andretti’s team. “I love the track, and how the fans energize the Speedway. To think I’m a 2-time winner here is beyond my wildest dream.”
“I especially wanted to win because this is a special occasion, the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.” he continued. “I love Indy and the state of Indiana has given me such wonderful opportunity. I just really wanted to win this particular race.”
“Bryan has been a teammate and a friend for a long time,” he continued. “Bryan gave me a fantastic opportunity to win this race, and he was very astute to collaborate with Sam Schmidt Motorsports,” with whom a data-sharing and technology development agreement was in place for Indy preparations over the last two weeks of May.
“Everyone Bryan has put together on the team has worked hard, and worked diligently, and done everything in their power to give me the best car possible,” said Wheldon. “I was just proud to drive it as hard as I could to get the win for them.”
The victory at Indianapolis comes at an emotional crossroads of a very personal nature for Wheldon, whose mother is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Wheldon has taken up the mantle to crusade on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association to find a cure for the memory-loss affliction that ravages the mind and the families of its victims.
“I am honored to represent Alzheimer’s Association and everyone who has a loved one with this disease,” he said. “I hope this made them smile, and it’s a tribute to everybody with that disease and to their families.”
It also has been a time for reflection on what to make of his truncated career prior to Sunday’s triumph, which was the only race on his personal 2011 schedule, and offer some praise to the friends who’ve stood by as he moved into a new period of his motorsports life.
“It’s an emotional relationship for me with Honda, who has always been as important and as big a proponent of me personally as anyone,” he said of the engine manufacturer with whom he developed close ties while at Andretti. “They’ve always been very loyal to me. It was emotional to win for wife and family.”
In the end, Wheldon’s victory was one for the record books in both execution and in moral terms. It gives a prop to all the little people with big aspirations over many, many years who have come to the gigantic 2.5 mile oval with more enthusiasm and desire than money and engineering talent.
“I just knew when I started with this Indy project that I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver a win not for myself but for just a great group of people,” the new and once-again champion said. “The team, the relationships and how we’ve bonded have been extremely valuable.”
“This is such a Cinderella story. We took on the Chip Ganassi and Penske organizations, and won. I only saw a Penske car once in front of me in the race. Now we can be proud of what we achieved together and take pride in it with our family back home.”