Sunday October 16, 2011 was always going to be a historic day for IndyCar. 2011 was both an experimental and transitional year for America’s premier open wheel racing series: New races, new rules, a new name, and a new car on the horizon. The centerpiece Indianapolis 500 celebrated its 100th birthday with a massive party and a legendary race. An equally massive season finale in Las Vegas would create a wave of momentum that IndyCar could ride into its latest era.
After the race everyone would be talking about IndyCar. Unfortunately, it was for all of the wrong reasons. 34 cars started the race, and within a dozen laps, nearly half the field would wreck in Turn 2. The crash was one of the most spectacular and horrific sports moments ever captured on live TV. It was a moment that would claim the life of Dan Wheldon, one of IndyCar’s brightest and most popular drivers. In a matter of moments, IndyCar’s crown jewel had become a blood diamond.
It has been 10 years since the world lost Dan Wheldon. Lots of people know two facts about Dan Wheldon: that he won the Indy 500 in the most memorable way possible and that he died in one of the most gruesome racing accidents in history. But his story is so much more interesting than those two events. Obviously, this will not be your typical MotoIQ piece as we uncover why Wheldon’s loss still reverberates in IndyCar today.
Daniel Clive Wheldon was born in England on June 22 1978. His father Clive was a plumber by trade, but enjoyed go karting in his spare time. Clive’s wife Sue, would be Clive’s time keeper (in the days before electronic scoring was invented). It was only natural then, that Dan would develop a motorsports itch and he was driving karts by the time he was four. Officially, his career did not begin until he was 8 years-old as regulations set a minimum age for karting drivers. By the time he was 12, he had already won three RAC British Cadet Karting Championships. At the age of 17, Dan moved out of karts and progressed to single seaters, first in Formula Vauxhall, then moving to Formula Fords. In 1998, he finished 2nd in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival. The winner of that year’s race? Some bloke named Jenson Button.
Unfortunately, Wheldon was unable to continue competing in European Formula Fords due to a lack of funding. Instead, Wheldon moved to the United States in 1999 and competed in The Formula Ford F2000 series. His run in F2000 netted Wheldon with a Toyota Atlantic ride in 2000 where he won in his debut race and finished second in the championship. Wheldon graduated to Indy Lights in 2001, winning two races, and finishing 2nd in the championship again. At this point, Wheldon wanted to move into CART. At the end of 2001, CART was still the largest open wheel series in the US, and was still battling NASCAR for overall popularity. Most of the big names in American Open Wheel Racing (AOWR) were competing in CART regularly and only dabbled in the IRL for the Indy 500. None of the CART teams were interested in Wheldon’s services, so he turned to the competing IRL, landing a job as a test driver for Panther Racing. This turned out to be an excellent move as Panther was reaching its peak, winning the 2001 and 2002 championships with Sam Hornish Jr. Wheldon was able to get his first race starts with Panther at the end of 2002. His talent caught the eye of Michael Andretti and Wheldon was signed for Andretti Green Racing for the team’s 2003 jump from CART to the IRL as a test driver. Wheldon replaced Dario Franchitti early in the season after Franchitti injured his back in a motorcycle accident. Wheldon made an immediate impact and when Michael Andretti retired after the ‘03 Indy 500, Wheldon took over Andretti’s car. Wheldon did not win in 2003, but ended his rookie season 11th in points with five top 5s including a 3rd at the season finale in Texas.