IRL: Wheldon looks ahead

IRL: Wheldon looks ahead

Dan Wheldon found a lot on his plate upon arriving at the Indy Racing League's Andretti Green Racing in 2003. He was intended to be the team's test driver until taking on his primary occupation of driving the ...

Dan Wheldon found a lot on his plate upon arriving at the Indy Racing League's Andretti Green Racing in 2003. He was intended to be the team's test driver until taking on his primary occupation of driving the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone racer at Indy last year.

Those plans, though, went out the window when teammate Dario Franchitti suffered back injuries while riding his motorcycle on holiday in Scotland. Suddenly, Wheldon was rushed to action and ended up being one of several substitutes for Franchitti. So he started his IndyCar Series career with AGR a bit earlier than expected, at Twin Ring Motegi last April.

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Helrigel.
The results were slow in coming despite a first finish at the Japanese track of seventh. That good result was followed by an accident in the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, mechanical difficulties at Texas in June, a spin at Pikes Peak and an accident in Kansas.

But then this young Briton went on a tear and recorded six straight top-10 results to the end of the season that placed him first in Bombardier Rookie of the Year standings, 12 points ahead of Roger Yasukawa to take the award. Taking that honor was Wheldon's goal for the 2003 season; getting it was quite an accomplishment.

Wheldon capped his successful 2003 IndyCar Series season with a third place finish at the Chevy 500 finale, giving him high hopes for a sophomore year at Andretti Green Racing.

This year, though, instead of having two teammates to enrich his learning experience, Wheldon has three: Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. Each of these drivers has an exemplary resume in American open wheel racing that can help Wheldon reach his dreams.

The goal for Dan Wheldon is exactly like that of his teammates: he wants to win the IndyCar Series title and, hopefully add an Indy 500 win to his achievements. He's made a good start toward those goals, by finishing first in the non-Penske class at the season opener, Sunday's Toyota Indy 300, where Wheldon earned his second straight third place podium spot.

It sure wasn't easy for Dan Wheldon last weekend, as he started the Toyota Indy 300 in 14th place after a miserable and difficult qualifying session. After exiting his car from time trials Saturday afternoon, Wheldon had an explanation: "We just missed a little bit on the setup," he said then, "but I think we've got a good race car."

He was right about the race car's abilities, as Wheldon drove to the front and, in fact, was the only driver other than the two guys who finished in front of him (Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves of Marlboro Team Penske) to lead in the late stages of the 200-lap race.

"In the final laps we were in a pretty strong position but we weren't as fast as the Penskes," Wheldon admitted. "I saw they worked well together and, while I could have been persistent, I thought it more sensible to bring the car home third." That's pretty mature for a 25-year-old, isn't it?

With the aid of his AGR mates, and with team co-owners Michael Andretti and Kim Green working to help Wheldon learn the ropes, Dan has worked hard to maintain consistency. "The biggest thing has been experience at different tracks," he said. "The League is ridiculously competitive and more race experience has helped me" get into a rhythm.

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Jack Durbin.
Recognizing that the Indy Racing League's point system rewards consistency and regular high scoring, Wheldon has adapted his driving styles to meet the League's demands.

"I'm just getting used to the tracks now, getting a handle on the series. I've been lucky I started with strong teams," he said. Wheldon ran two races with Panther Racing before moving last year to AGR. "Our car setups are very close at Andretti Green and, by being able3 to work with these guys so closely, we all benefit.

"I've got great teammates who are willing to help me and that's a huge advantage," Wheldon continued. "They tell me things I might not pick up as quickly otherwise. And with Michael [Andretti] helping, well, he's been in so many races and won so many races that I can pick up lots of things."

The new, graduated banking configuration at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the Toyota Indy 300 season opening race for the IndyCar Series played into the results on Sunday, but Wheldon didn't have the kind of problems experienced by teammate Dario Franchitti and others with cars drifting up the track.

"My standpoint was that the race was pretty much what I expected from a superspeedway. This track has unique corners that are quite tight, so it is tough to have a good handle on it. The wind can cause problems here and it's tough to race on the lower line," Wheldon acknowledged.

"I never had a near-miss during the race," he said. "I didn't come up on that. It's tough to keep the car down [on the apron] but Brian Barnhart [the Indy Racing League's senior vice president of racing operations] did a good job in our drivers' meeting, explaining the low line and how we needed to maintain our line. It's all about common sense and respect for one another," Wheldon revealed.

Wheldon fully appreciates the use of SAFER barriers, installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and being adopted by tracks around the country now. At Homestead-Miami Speedway he praised the installation: "Definitely we notice and appreciate the SAFER barriers a great deal. The Indy Racing League and the different tracks have been working hard on safety and I don't think we talk about those advances as much as we should."

Where last year he was an anomaly, Wheldon is now one of four UK-bred drivers competing in the IndyCar Series. He's joined by Scotland's Franchitti, by rookie Mark Taylor (2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series champion) and by Darren Manning. "In the UK they are calling us the 'Fab Four' and that's fun. They show the races on Sunday night and people love to watch them.

"You know, in Formula One there isn't much overtaking but our races are never boring in that way. People love to see overtaking" and the IRL offers plenty of passing opportunities, Wheldon agreed.

And now, it's on the Phoenix International Raceway mile oval for Wheldon and at least 18 other IndyCar Series competitors on March 21st. "Phoenix is a difficult track and will present a different kind of race. While we learned a lot for our next superspeedway event at Homestead, Phoenix" isn't the same kind of circuit.

One thing for sure about Dan Wheldon: "My time is coming. I want to be in position for the championship and I also am putting special emphasis on race #3 at Twin Ring Motegi [on April 18th]. I really want to win that one for Honda, and then look ahead to Indy again this year. I know now how special Indy is, being here for a whole month. I love it; it's a special race."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mark Taylor , Darren Manning , Helio Castroneves , Michael Andretti , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Kim Green , Brian Barnhart , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing