IRL: Invisible Wheldon

How has life changed for 2005 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Dan Wheldon since his victory on May 29th? As the Briton's contract at Andretti Green Racing is up for renewal after the season, Wheldon's got a lot more to play with than he did ...

How has life changed for 2005 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Dan Wheldon since his victory on May 29th?

As the Briton's contract at Andretti Green Racing is up for renewal after the season, Wheldon's got a lot more to play with than he did after the 2003 season when he won Bombardier Rookie of the Year or last year, when he finished second in IndyCar Series points to teammate Tony Kanaan.

Wheldon's value has gone up with his point total, but to the general public, he's just the guy who beat Danica Patrick and, for them anyway, ruined a fairy tale finish to the 89th Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The Rodney Dangerfield of IRL competition, Dan Wheldon just can't get any respect, here and in his native country. While Wheldon thinks he might now be "bigger than Beckham," the soccer star is still more recognizable even in New York City.

Still, the 27-year-old Briton who now makes his home in St. Petersburg, Florida seems content to have the big prize of his mug on the Borg Warner Trophy. "You experience a complete range of emotions at the Indianapolis 500. Through that month there were some real low points for me and qualifying was one of them. There were some real high points too, obviously the highest point being winning the race.

"So much emotion and effort goes into that race. You can have the best car in the world and still not win - just ask [my boss] Michael Andretti - he's had very, very good cars at the Speedway and not won the Indianapolis 500." No, Andretti hasn't won as a driver but he is an Indy winning team owner and has won in the IRL since AGR's first 2003 season.

As for Wheldon, who demoralized his competition by winning four of the first five races on the 17-event schedule, it's been nothing but famine since, if a sixth, fifth, second and fifth, combined with a solitary mechanical DNF are applicable. He's still got 68 points up and is confident he can succeed.

The goal is to win the title as accompaniment for his achievements at Indy, but after that, then what? Wheldon's had talks with Formula One teams, NASCAR teams, other IRL squads and his current bosses at AGR. He and manager Julian Jakobi are keeping their options close to the vest at this point.

"I'm just making sure I know what my options are and what's out there. I'm very happy with the team I'm with right now. We're certainly very successful and we're focused on trying to win the championship," Dan declared. "With my future, I'm not putting it on hold but we're just waiting to see exactly what our options are. I'm going to assess them and I'm going to do what's right for me."

Wheldon's not racing "safe" either but is probably not taking the kind of risks a pursuer might put out. "From a setup standpoint and from a car standpoint, we're doing everything we can to go as quick as we can. Sometimes when you're leading a series there's certain risks that people will have to take that are behind you to try and catch you and bridge that gap. But there's also instances when we can't afford to do that," he explained.

"I certainly feel more confident having my teammates around me than anybody else because I know they're obviously not going to do anything silly. At the same time I know they're going to race me 100 percent. It's very, very high respect I have for those three," Wheldon enunciated.

Wheldon and his three teammates - Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Kanaan - were part of a strange ritual last Saturday evening at The Milwaukee Mile. As is customary at every IndyCar Series race meeting, there was an autograph session, which all drivers must attend. Andretti Green Racing objected to the protocol involved in this session, where one line was set up for Danica Patrick and her Rahal Letterman Racing teammates and a second line for, essentially, everyone else.

Andretti Green Racing decided to boycott and held their own autograph session at the team's merchandise trailer. It wasn't the separate lines that had team owners Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree fuming, it was the manner in which it was done. The drivers were not involved in the decision to boycott and, in fact, a meeting was held on Tuesday the 26th between AGR and the IRL to iron out the problem.

For his part, Wheldon sings the praises of Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie who is the first woman to lead laps at Indy, finishing fourth. "I know what it felt like when I was a rookie in 2003 and I didn't have the media attention anywhere close to what she had. To her credit, I think Danica handles it absolutely excellently. When we're out on the track, it's not like I'm racing Danica Patrick. It's another driver and she handles herself in such a way that it's not noticeable. I give her a lot of credit for that."

Patrick has "brought more fans to the track and is a big part of our increased TV ratings. I think she's doing an absolutely excellent job right now and I think a win is going to come." As for the weight difference between Patrick and her larger, male competition, Wheldon thinks "her difference in weight has somewhat changed our training program. I know we focused a lot on not only cardio but a lot on weights previously," and he no longer does that to keep the extra weight musculature brings to a minimum.

For her part, Patrick recorded her second DNF of the season in Milwaukee after crashing in a solo incident in the second turn on the 126th lap. Immediately blaming herself, Patrick may have been too harsh because second finisher Franchitti did report oil in the area.

Still she let the car get away from her where other drivers with a bit more experience may have been able to save it. "I was definitely leaning towards oversteer in the race and that kind of emphasized the problem," she contended. Will she change the setup when she gets to Michigan Saturday morning? Absolutely not.

"No matter what, you go for the faster car and you learn to deal with it. I was definitely dealing with it in the race because my engineer Ray [Leto] asked me how the car was. It might have looked like it was going okay," because she was moving up the field and, when she crashed was in sixth place. "I came on the radio and said, 'It's all over the place,'" she laughed.

This weekend the Indy Racing League combatants take 200 laps around Michigan International Speedway, where Wheldon has two races in an Indy car under his belt and Patrick, as usual has none. Will that paradox play out on the race track? Will it find its fate in an autograph session? The race airs at 3PM EDT on ABC.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Dan Wheldon , Kim Green , Danica Patrick