Dan Wheldon: Ten Years Later

2010 was a terrible time to lose a racing seat.  The buyout and merger of CART (now ChampCar) with the IRL in 2008 should have attracted lots of new teams with sponsors all eager to win the Indy 500.  Of course this merger happened just as a global recession forced companies around the world to rethink their spending.  When those companies wanted to spend money on racing, they turned to NASCAR which was at the peak of its popularity.  This left IndyCar teams fighting for scraps and subsequently many struggling CART and IRL teams folded.  By 2011, there were only 23 full-time cars and races usually had 26 or so entries.  Wheldon was released from his Panther contract late in 2010 and with a dearth of open seats in the series, one of the most popular drivers in the field was left on the sidelines.

Wheldon Waiting

The Season

Wheldon was thrown a lifeline by Byran Herta.  Herta had retired from driving and set up Bryan Herta Autosport in 2010 with an eye on buying a new car for 2012 and competing full time.  Wheldon and Herta were teammates during the Andretti heydays and with Wheldon needing a ride and Herta needing a driver, the pair seemed perfect.  Herta announced that Wheldon would drive the number 98 car for the 2011 Indy 500.

At the beginning of the year though, Wheldon was a relatively minor story.  The biggest story going into the 2011 season was the fact that the premier American Open Wheel Racing (AOWR) series would no longer be called the Indy Racing League and would instead be the IZOD IndyCar Series.  The IRL was a relic of the old CART/Indy 500 war from the mid-1990s that effectively killed AOWR.  We’ve briefly discussed this period in history but if you want a much more in-depth look at what happened to AOWR in the ‘90s, one can do no better than this series written a decade ago.  In early 2010, Tony George, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s President and the head of the IRL, stepped down in favor of a relatively young promoter named Randy Bernard.  Bernard’s claim to fame was taking Professional Bull Riding and transforming it from a fairground pastime into a nationally televised association sponsored by Ford.  PBR had made the jump with a mix of change balanced with riding its history as a blue collar tradition (pun absolutely intended).  Bernard could do the same with IndyCar, finding new places to set up shop while leaning on the century-long history of AOWR.  Bernard spent most of 2010 listening to teams, drivers, track owners, sponsors, and fans.  In 2011, he began to act.  His first big step was the name change, soon followed by the announcement that the Milwaukee Mile would return to the calendar for 2011.  Along with Milwaukee, the Loudon mile would also return to the IndyCar schedule for the first time since 1997, and the series would conclude in Las Vegas.  Vegas had not run an open wheel race since 2000.  The Texas race would be split into a double header with half points awarded in each race, just like the old fairground races of the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Randy Bernard & Jeff Belskius
Randy Bernard (left) was an outside name brought into the series to revitalize a sport that had grown stagnant after years of infighting. With a unified series and a growing economy, IndyCar had limitless potential as becoming the next big thing again. Source

2011 would also be the final year for the aging Dallara IR05 race car.  The IR05’s roots traced all the way back to the original IRL days: cheap, oval-only beasts with heavy, failure-prone 4.0L Sprint Car-type engines.  The car was dated looking, expensive, and prone to backflips.  It was common for an IR05 to go upside down at least once a year, if not much more often: sometimes drivers walked away, sometimes they would be injured for half a season, and sometimes they would spend years in physical therapy.  The oval-only design also meant that the IR-05 was not a great road racer, a problem for a series that now ran a majority of road and street courses.  The old 3.5L V8s sounded spectacular, but were only available because Honda liked winning the Indy 500 without competition.  With costs rising, OEMs uninterested, and the cars no longer racing on the types of tracks they were designed for, IndyCar needed a replacement.  After putting together a committee, evaluating proposals, and lots of negotiation, Dallara was chosen to supply the newest IndyCar.  Aside from engines and dampers, the car would be completely designed and built by Dallara, a move to keep development costs low for teams.

IndyCar 2011
The old Dallara tank was long past its sell-by date, but still put on some great racing. Source

Alongside the dozens of off-track changes, IndyCar was putting on a mammoth season.  Dario Franchitti fired the first shot by winning the season opening race in St Petersburg.  Will Power followed up by winning at Barber Motorsports Park.  Mike Conway took a surprise win at Long Beach.  Will Power had the points lead going into Long Beach but collided with teammate Helio Castroneves and dropped through the field.  Power fought back at the next race in Sao Paulo, Brazil (at this time IndyCar had multiple Brazilian drivers and was being sponsored by Brazilian Ethanol, so a race in Brazil made sense), giving Power a small points lead as the series headed to Indianapolis.  But it’s Indianapolis…nobody gives a damn about points at Indy.  More importantly, the racing had been spectacular with Franchitti and Power trading blows at the height of their professional rivalry.  Both drivers were at the top of their game with teams (Ganassi for Franchitti and Penske for Power) to match.  Indianapolis was the first oval of the season and it was expected that the battle would resume there.


  1. Great article, not a fan a Indy and at that time I had no idea of who DW was, but after reading this I have a very clear idea of what a larger than life character and his overall impact in the series.

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