IRL: Dan is the man in Indy

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IRL: Dan is the man in Indy

It's been less than 24 hours since Dan Wheldon drank milk in Victory Lane, having won the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in his third try. Has the magnitude of his name change from "Dan Wheldon" to "Dan Wheldon, Indy winner" sunk in ...

It's been less than 24 hours since Dan Wheldon drank milk in Victory Lane, having won the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in his third try. Has the magnitude of his name change from "Dan Wheldon" to "Dan Wheldon, Indy winner" sunk in yet?

Race winner Dan Wheldon kisses the Borg Warner trophy.
Photo by Dan Helrigel - IRL.
"I look at the podium bearing my name and suddenly realize I've won the biggest race in the world, the biggest sporting event in the world. Realizing what I've achieved really has not sunk in," Wheldon admitted. "I'm still a bit choked up over it.

"Since 1999 when I first came here, this race has been an eye-opener. How this race is, the way that it happens is simply amazing. It captures every possible emotion."

Wheldon ran his first Indy 500 in 2003 but it sure didn't end as auspiciously as this one when he crashed and rolled his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone racer. Last year he began the 200-lap contest in second place and ended up third behind Buddy Rice and teammate Tony Kanaan.

His third try is truly the charm. Coming from a moribund 16th on the grid, Wheldon listened to new team manager John Anderson and drove a steady, not heady race. Falling to 18th on the first, manic lap Wheldon settled in and never saw double-digit standings after lap 50.

Wheldon didn't lead the most laps - that distinction went to Sam Hornish Jr. with 77 laps led - but he did lead four times for 30 laps and was in front when it mattered. On the grid, Wheldon's team was confident they'd do well. "It's a short walk to Victory Lane," one mechanic laughed. "Will we see you there?"

Dan Wheldon didn't just magically appear as an IndyCar Series driver. He came up a difficult way, leaving home and coming to America in search of opportunity. It sure looks like 26-year-old Wheldon found what he was looking for.

Indy's had an allure for Wheldon since his childhood and a look at a photo of Scot Jim Clark racing on the Brickyard oval. When he arrived here and began driving in the US FF2000 series, winning that title first time out (and Rookie of the Year) with six victories and five other podium finishes, team managers began to take note.

Race winner Dan Wheldon poses with the Borg Warner trophy and his car.
Photo by Dana Garrett - IRL.
Wheldon next appeared in the Toyota Atlantic Championship, driving for a consummate professional, Cal Wells III and PPI. He finished second his first year there, taking two wins - one in his debut - and became Rookie of the Year.

In 2001 Wheldon moved to the Dayton Indy Lights championship with PacWest Racing Group. Again he was named Rookie of the Year, but this time Wheldon was second in the championship with dual wins - one on an oval, one on a road course.

"I remember everyone that's helped me on the way. PPI was such a professional organization; they opened the eyes of other team owners to who I was, but there's no one person who got me here."

When Andretti, Green and Savoree decided to move their operation from CART/Champ Car to the IRL's IndyCar Series, they chose Wheldon to help test in preparation of the change. Wheldon did much of Honda's test work as well and, when Michael Andretti climbed from the cockpit a final time at Indy in 2003, Wheldon assumed his crew and mantle.

Despite missing the first three races preceding Indianapolis, Wheldon earned his fourth consecutive Rookie title with 11th place in the points chase.

He hasn't looked back, coming second to Kanaan in last season's title competition, winning at Twin Ring Motegi to give engine supplier Honda its first, monumental home track victory, along with wins at Richmond and in the final Nazareth contest held at the Andretti family's home circuit.

This year, of course Dan's the man, having prevailed in four of the first five races. The only way he can fail to take the title is by snookering himself out of it. But Indy, a win at Indianapolis has been Wheldon's primary goal since he arrived on these shores.

When Tony Cotman, "the brother" who had been calling Wheldon's races left for another job after being with the Green brothers throughout their ascendancy, Anderson came onboard as team manager. It was quite a change for Wheldon who remarked, "His position is very difficult, replacing someone hugely respected and talented on this team.

"Ando's a good guy. I can get into the car and do anything I want and he'll back my play. When he says something, you just do it. John came in and we've won four of the first five races but, even more importantly, we've won the one I wanted most.

"You've got to remember the magnitude of this event, how difficult racing at Indy can be," Wheldon reminded. "There are so many things that can go right and so many things that can go wrong in the month of May. This place pulls every possible emotion in your body. Even now, it's so hard not to cry over this victory.

"Here, too much can happen. The best car is not always the winning car here. I am," Wheldon choked out, "so very, very happy for Michael. He loved racing at Indy and he loves being an owner, a winning owner at Indy."

Off on a whirlwind media tour to celebrate his victory, Dan Wheldon has a few plans for the extra money he'll earn for this most special victory. "I'm going to buy some toys. I think I'll get a boat for my new house (in St Petersburg, where he won his second race of the season). I want a small boat with two of the biggest engines I can get, the most powerful engines I can get," Wheldon grinned.

After the media attention, Wheldon must prepare for the ultimate challenge of stringing together sufficient points in the remaining 12 races on the IndyCar Series calendar to gain the title from Kanaan. "We won't do anything different," he conceded.

"My experience level is getting better and better and I'm able to read situations more and realize what I need in the car." Has he thought of going to Formula 1, the recognized pinnacle of open wheel racing? "I'm very, very happy where I'm at and this race is all I've focused on since the beginning of the season. This win will certainly make me a little more relaxed when I come back next year, won't it?"

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Series INDYCAR