Back in the Saddle
INDIANAPOLIS (Sept. 27, 2011) – In the rolling hills of northern Kentucky sit countless farms where the world’s best thoroughbreds are born, raised and trained.
Hidden in those scenic rolling hills, just a few miles south of the Ohio River, is a motorsports gem called Kentucky Speedway. The 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, Ky., is the site this weekend where IndyCar jockey Dan Wheldon will climb back in the saddle of one of the mechanical thoroughbreds from the Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) stable.
Wheldon will drive the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone car in Sunday’s Kentucky Indy 300, which is round 16 of the 17-event IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It will just be Wheldon’s second start in an Indy car this season. He did make that one other start count, though, in the biggest way ever.
Driving a car entered by Bryan Herta Autosport, Wheldon etched his name in the history books by winning his second Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. The 100th Anniversary of the Indy 500 was the only IndyCar race on the Emberton, England driver’s 2011 schedule until just a few weeks ago.
In a recent press conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wheldon was selected to drive for the $5 million Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge in Las Vegas in the final IndyCar Series race of the season. As the reigning Indy 500 champion, Wheldon has the chance to win $2.5 million for both himself and a lucky fan.
Wheldon’s preparation for the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge took a twist when he was offered the opportunity to drive the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins car in Kentucky this weekend. As thoroughbreds go, the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda-powered car is the stud in the SSM stable. It is the same car that driver Alex Tagliani put on the pole for this year’s Indianapolis 500 and also drove to a pole position at Texas in June.
Not only did he want to get comfortable in an Indy car again before Las Vegas, Wheldon also has some unfinished business at Kentucky Speedway. So, it didn’t take him long to jump at the SSM offer.
In eight starts at Kentucky, Wheldon has finished in third place three times (2004, 2005, 2010) and started on the front row in 2005. More impressive is the fact he has led a total of 269 laps there.
With a shot at finally winning at Kentucky and earning $5 million in Las Vegas, you can bet Dan Wheldon is eager to get back in the saddle.
Dan Wheldon, Driver of the No. 77 B&W Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
You climb back in the saddle at a track where you have qualified and raced really well. Does Kentucky provide a good comfort level for you as a place to return to racing?
“For me, it’s a track where I’ve always been fast. Obviously, I was very quick there last year. Unfortunately, I got caught out on fuel strategy at the end. Alex was incredibly quick there, too, with what is now Sam’s team. We know Tag well enough to know that he’s done a lot of hard work, so I think we’ll have a good baseline set-up. But for me, it’s about being back in a competitive environment. I’ve been blessed to be part of the testing for the 2012 IndyCar, and I’ve enjoyed that. But, I’m just looking forward to racing again. I feel we have the ability to contend for the win (at Kentucky). By no means is it going to be easy. There are certainly a number of incredibly talented people out there. But, we’re going to give it our best shot. At the end of the day, I’m not competing for a championship. I just have one sole focus, which will help simplify the weekend. ”
After racing just once and testing the rest of the year, you now have a busy few weeks. What are your thoughts about these opportunities in Kentucky and Las Vegas?
“I’m really, really excited to be back racing again. I’ve been really blessed to do this stuff (testing the 2012 Indy car). But for me, I’m an extremely competitive person. I miss that competitive aspect of the driving, so I’m really, really excited to be back. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Alex has given me with Sam Schmidt. It’s going to be a good few weeks for me.”
Do you view Kentucky as just a warm-up for Las Vegas and the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge?
“It’s good preparation for Vegas. Everbody’s been talking, or the message I’ve been getting, is ‘hey, you can come in and win this,’ which has been very nice. But by the same token, I’ve been out of the car for an incredible amount of time - the current car, I should say. Do I feel confident going to Kentucky? Yes. But by the same token, I’m cautious with that confidence. It’ll be good prep. Everybody at that team (SSM), you know I’ve been part of that team at Indianapolis with Bryan’s team (Bryan Herta Autosport), and they tend to be able to roll out of the truck very quickly. So, that will be a huge help, and it’s a track that I’ve been to a lot before. So, I do think it will be good preparation, but don’t underestimate all those guys. They’re obviously seriously good, and they’ve been in the cockpit all year. .”