Wheldon Basks In The Spotlight

Indianapolis, Ind. – Dan Wheldon returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway less than a day after racing across the yard of bricks to win the 100th anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500. Sporting a continuous smile, the race victor started his day by participating in the winner’s photo shoot followed by a session with the media, watching a video recap and discussing it with reporters. Thereafter, he was on the move to do more interviews and other obligations.

Monday evening he accepted honors at the victory banquet and collected the winner’s prize of $2.56 million.

As everyone knows, the centennial edition of the Indianapolis 500 was cut from the “Thrill of Victory, Again of Defeat” script. Wheldon, who had not led a single lap until then, took the lead with approximately a quarter mile to go, doing so when rookie J. R. Hildebrand crashed within sight of the finish line. The latter completed 799 turns without incident but the 800th and final one bit him.

“I value the history and tradition of this race track,” he said. “I am not the 100th winner but the winner of the 100th anniversary and a two-time winner. I am obviously proud to be a winner of such a special race, and it is going to mean an immense amount to me going down the road.”

At a post-race party, Wheldon got to meet Dick Harroun, the 96-year old son of 1911 winner Ray Harroun, and was impressed enough to have his picture taken with the gentleman.

Wheldon won for the second time and while he says every victory is important, he says this one is more enjoyable as he’s older and more mature, which allows him to appreciate it more. “I was a kid back then and in an entirely different stage in my life,” he said. He was footloose and fancy free then, and he’s a married man and father of two small children.

While the television and newspaper lead stories described the last-lap drama, Wheldon said his run to the front started 20 laps earlier when his team advised that he had enough fuel to make it to the end regardless of how hard he pushed. Hearing these words, he made his move to the front.

En route to front, he had at least three challenges – an unexpected run-in with Tony Kanaan, a punt in the rear by an unidentified driver and last lap difficulties overhauling Ana Beatriz’s slower car. He thought the close encounter with Kanaan was uncalled for and let the Brazilian know about it afterward.

Wheldon was extremely optimistic going into the race, heaping credit on engineer Alan McDonald, who oversaw the Brit’s car during his first-ever IndyCar race. “From the get go, I knew it was going to be a good race car,” he said. “The car handled well from the outset but it was a bit slower than the cars of Tags (Alex Tagliani) and Townsend (Bell). The crew kept working on the car constantly, making it better.”

Addressing the final laps, Wheldon stated, “When I was on the beach next wife, I wanted to make sure that I had done everything in my power and had given every ounce of effort that I had. I was constantly adjusting the weight jacker and was running 223 mph laps at the end, which is pretty quick. I didn’t want to lift for Ana (Beatriz) for her because he (Hildenbrand) might sputter toward the finish line. I was focused on her but saw him hit the wall, and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t hit any of the debris.

“And I know I passed him before the caution came out. I knew the situation and I was looking at the lights the whole time. That’s like asking me last year if the yellow hadn’t come out would I have passed Dario (for the victory). I was pretty confident I had the win, but even more surprised that he (Hildebrand) went to the outside.”

Wheldon says confidence is very important at Indianapolis and that a driver can tell how at ease another driver is by the way he slices through traffic. “Alan (McDonald) understands what I want from the race car and along with Tom Malloy, the two worked very closely with me”
As for winning the race, Wheldon said his contribution to the team was the emphasis he placed on aerodynamic numbers. The driver has numbers etched in his mind and when the engineers started tossing out other numbers, Wheldon took exception to the dismay of the technical staff. The next morning the engineers advised Wheldon he was right and their formula was wrong.

“I felt good to be back (behind the wheel), and I felt like the old Dan was back – a confident and happy Dan, which was great,” Wheldon said.
The Indianapolis 500 winner’s arrangement with Bryan Herta Motorsports was for one race, and the contract expired at midnight, which Wheldon has mentioned repeatedly. “I am unemployed,” he said with a chuckle, admitting he hopes to return to the IndyCar Series wars. “It is difficult to find someone in the paddock that will give you everything you need, and Bryan has done that and more,” Wheldon said. “Bryan is an astute business person, and if he can’t do it right, he won’t do it at all. And my management has got me to the point that I can be more selective with the teams I drive for.”

Said Herta about his first win in two tries, “Dan (Wheldon) truly believed we could win this race and it was his belief in us that raised the bar. He made us believe in ourselves and have a shot for him. Obviously, luck and good fortune played a lot into it. Everyone here works very hard to make this race, and it is a humbling honor to come out on top.”

Herta, an accomplished driver, admitted he wasn’t trying to think too hard about Sunday’s race and more interested in absorbing the entire experience. “We are just trying to enjoy all of this and soaking it in.”

While Wheldon, the driver, was tearing around the track, Susie Wheldon, his wife, was biting nails watching from the pit box. “I was listening on the radio and didn’t know whether we had a chance, but when I heard the spotter say, ‘No. 4 has crashed,’ I got very excited. It was very emotional and almost surreal to me. And I know how much this means to Dan.”

Dan and Susie Wheldon along with their two small children will be basking in the spotlight for the foreseeable future and even though the race winner is unemployed at the moment, his downtime may not last long.

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