Remembering Another Side of Dan Wheldon
It’s easy to think back and recall Dan Wheldon’s greatest moments on a race track.
Scoring Honda’s long-sought first win at its home track of Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in 2004.
Taking a dominant victory in his first race for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, in 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And of course those two classic wins (and a few near-wins) at the Indianapolis 500. Wheldon’s 2011 triumph, when he won for the comparatively small Bryan Herta Autosport team against the might of the Ganassi and Penske organizations, ranks as one of the great David vs. Goliath stories in the century-long history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
But today, on the one-year anniversary of Dan’s passing, the folks at the Speedway asked me to share some memories of the other side of Dan Wheldon – the side that the public doesn’t get to see on television, or read about in the stories I write.
The relationship between journalists and the subjects they cover is often tricky. By definition, we are supposed to remain objective, and not get too close so we don’t end up playing favorites.
I’ve been in this business for twenty years, and if you cover a single racing series over that length of time, it’s inevitable that as a writer, you’re actually going to become friends with a few of the drivers.
Although I knew him since 2001, I don’t think I ever reached that point with Wheldon. Our relationship kind of reminded me of my high school days: He was one of the popular kids – a jock, if you will – and I was just a wallflower who was flattered when guys like Dan paid attention to me.
We may not have been outright friends, but IndyCar is a small community, so we were certainly more than acquaintances. And just seeing the way Dan developed as a person (as opposed to a race car driver), I’m pretty sure we would have ended up being friends, swapping stories about our kids or our latest racing memorabilia acquisition.
Here are a couple of stories that illustrate the kind of relationship I had with Dan – stories that really bring out his personality within the IndyCar community - the people he interacted with on a daily basis.
It’s well known that Dan was very self-conscious about his teeth. Let’s face it, the British are often dentally challenged, and if you look at pictures of Wheldon celebrating victories up through his 2005 championship season, you’ll note that his mouth is rarely open.
Prior to the 2006 season, Wheldon had a reported $40,000 worth of dental work done that turned his smile into a radiant row of gleaming white Chiclets. No longer unwilling or afraid to smile, Wheldon’s new grille literally lit up a room.
IndyCar’s 2006 preseason media day was held in conjunction with an open test at Homestead. Throughout the day, Wheldon and all the other drivers were shuttled between stations for print and television interviews and photo shoots. About half a dozen photo agencies set up portable studios to capture ‘hero’ shots of the drivers fully kitted out in their new uniforms.
Near the end of the shoot schedule, I wandered into LAT Photo’s studio to visit friends. When I walked in, Wheldon’s teeth were obviously the point of discussion; in fact, a pair of Wheldon’s countrymen – Laurence Foster and David Malsher of RACER Magazine – were preparing to wind him up about the new choppers. They were doctoring a banana peel to insert over their own teeth to poke fun at their pal.
Spying a stack of white Styrofoam cups, I realized they could do better. I tore off a piece of the cup and inserted it on my teeth. Laurence exclaimed, “Oreo, that’s brilliant!” and set about drawing lines on my ‘teeth’ with a black Sharpie marker.
You know what happened next. Almost as if on cue, in walked Wheldon, completely busting us as we prepared our ‘teeth’ gag. Looking back now, several years later, it’s not surprising that Wheldon didn’t get upset, but in the heat of the moment in early 2006, that’s what we expected. Instead, he just laughed along with us.
A few hours later, after the cars had run a night practice session on the Homestead oval, I was walking through the paddock to chase down an interview. Around the corner walked Wheldon; we were the only people within 30 yards. I was worried that Dan was upset about our earlier gag, but instead, he shouted out, “Hey Oreo, where’s your teeth?”
“Uh, they’re back in my hotel room, soaking in some Polident,” I stammered. And we both slapped a high-five and had a good laugh before we went on about our business.
In those days, Wheldon didn’t have the smoothest relationship with the media – as my next story will illustrate. But that moment - when I saw that Dan actually had the ability to step back and laugh at himself, and he realized that the media really wasn’t out to get him - was a turning point in our professional relationship. And we always got along just fine after that.
When Wheldon won the 2005 Indianapolis 500, he didn’t earn a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Instead, the driver who finished fourth in the race stole the spotlight, and that infuriated him.
Wheldon dominated the 2005 IndyCar season, but it was the Summer of Danica, and every other driver, no matter how much success they achieved on the track, was cast in a supporting role. And Wheldon didn’t like that.
Like SI, RACER magazine made the snap decision to feature Patrick on the cover of its post Indy 500 issue. At the time, RACER also published IndyCar Series magazine, and Jeff Olson was the main Indy writer for both publications. Through a miscommunication, Wheldon thought he was going to be featured on the RACER cover, and when it didn’t happen, he took out his frustration on Olson.
Jeff went to interview Dan a couple weeks later for an IndyCar Series magazine cover story, but still stinging from the RACER cover snub, Wheldon decided not to cooperate. Jeff tells the story much better than I ever could (it’s his story, after all!), but the end result is that within the space of 24 hours, Wheldon cooled down and gave Jeff an outstanding and revealing interview, and finally got his cover story.
Fast forward six years to 2011: I’m sitting with Dan at the Honda hospitality area during Wheldon’s endless summer. He had won the Indianapolis 500, against all odds, really, earning the cover of RACER Magazine in the process (but alas, again not Sports Illustrated). But at the time, that was the only race he was scheduled to drive all year, and while chasing a full-time ride for 2012 and beyond, he kept coming to races, sometimes doing television commentary for NBC Sports, and sometimes just hanging with his friends at Honda.
TE McHale, the manager of motorsports public relations for American Honda, burst into the tent with a box of books. “Honda’s Challenging Spirit: Adversity and Success at the Indianapolis 500” was literally hot off the presses, and TE distributed copies for all to see.
Any author knows that at least one mistake inevitably finds its way into print. As I leafed through the book, authored by my friend and colleague David Phillips, I noticed a doozy: The cover photo, featuring Dan in the #10 Target Ganassi entry leading a group of cars at Indianapolis, was incorrectly captioned, identifying his teammate Scott Dixon instead. The photo was also used on the last page of the book, with the same error in the caption.
As diplomatically as possible, I pointed out the error to TE. Muttering curse words under his breath, he stormed into the motorcoach to try to get the problem sorted. Left alone at the table with Wheldon, I turned to him and said, “Well Dan, it looks like you got a cover you weren’t expecting!” And we both had a hearty laugh.
Although I am not an autograph collector, when Dan offered to sign my book, I quickly accepted. His only question was what number to add to his signature…26? 4? 98? We decided on 26, because the photo across from the title page that he signed was from Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2005.
He wrote: “To Oreo, Enjoy the book my friend!”
And that’s how I will remember Dan Wheldon.
“Honda’s Challenging Spirit: Adversity and Success at the Indianapolis 500” by David Phillips is available from the Honda Racing Store. http://hondaracingstore.com/accessories/hondas-challenging-spirit-book/
A prior book extensively documents Honda’s history at Indianapolis from 1993-95 - “A Winning Adventure: Honda’s Decade in CART Racing” by Gordon Kirby and John Oreovicz is available from David Bull Publishing