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Wheldon’s Influence, Popularity Reached Far Beyond Victory Lane

His record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway supports the claim that Dan Wheldon was one of the best to ever compete in the Indianapolis 500. In just nine starts, Wheldon compiled an impressive two wins, two second places, a third and a fourth. He started on the front row three times and led 235 laps over that same timespan.

Dan Wheldon loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the track – a track upon which to be successful a driver must have luck and fortunate circumstances on his side – seemed to reciprocate that affection almost from the moment he passed through the main tunnel for the first time.

But what truly makes Wheldon remarkable – and the legacy that will live on for years to come – is not what he accomplished on the track. What he did off the track, however, for teammates, fellow competitors and individual fans is what most people mention when remembering the two-time Indy 500 winner.

“Simply put, Dan was the best driver I have ever worked with when it came to taking care of his relationships,” said T.E. McHale, motorsports public relations manager for American Honda Motor Company, Inc. “It is no exaggeration to say that he found a way to accommodate every single request I ever made of him, including several that must have caused him significant personal inconvenience. It is staggering to think about the effort he expended to provide people with a memory that would last a lifetime.”

Relationships to Wheldon went far beyond just the corporate connections that are so important in professional motorsports. Relationships to Wheldon started with the fans.

“Dan had this amazing ability to connect to anybody he met and make them feel like they were the only person that mattered at that moment,” said Bryan Herta, a former teammate and co-owner of Wheldon’s 2011 Indy 500-winning team. “Race morning at Las Vegas, as Dan was on the way to the grid, he stopped to talk to a family that had been waiting outside the truck for 30 minutes to see him. Despite the race getting close and our PR people urging him to get to the grid, he stopped and he connected to each person in the family that had been waiting, and as he walked away he looked back over his shoulder and said, ‘Thanks for coming to the race today; we really appreciate it.’”

Wheldon understood that in many ways, winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 had propelled him into a position as the “face” of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not just the Indianapolis 500. IMS officials invited him to the 2011 Brickyard 400 weekend to serve as an IMS ambassador to the fans and the NASCAR Cup Series drivers.

And the IMS and Brickyard 400 fans in attendance liked seeing Wheldon walking around the facility.

Wheldon hadn’t been on the track at IMS since his victory in May and quickly talked Speedway and Chevrolet officials into giving him the opportunity to help Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. give high-speed Pace Car rides to sponsor guests in attendance.

“It’s not the same speed as May,” he said with a grin as he was waiting for the next round of riders to hop in with him. “But 145 mph in a street car going into Turn 1 seems to make the passengers happy!”

Being a two-time winner has perks that go along with that distinction, but those perks never seemed to register with Wheldon. At one point during Brickyard 400 weekend, he was walking down the back steps of the Pagoda and noticed out of the corner of his eye that a photo of him in Victory Circle in May 2011 was displayed. He passed it. Stopped. Turned around and smiled.

“Hey, that’s me!” Wheldon said, as if he was surprised he had won the race. “That’s pretty cool. I want my picture taken with me! Somebody take my picture with me!”

And Wheldon posed, pointing to the picture of him standing in victory circle and flashing his trademark Dan Wheldon smile.

One the traits that made Wheldon so popular was his ability to combine a humble, servant’s attitude with a confident, likeable swagger. It was an attitude that was appropriate for the winner of the most prestigious race in the world – a race he won on May 29, 2005 and May 29, 2011.

“His confidence allowed him to shine whether shaking hands with a Fortune 500 CEO or with his fans on his way out to the grid,” said longtime Wheldon representative Adrian Sussmann. “Dan's ability to smile and quip made everyone feel better about themselves. And it was this skill, combined with his incredible determination to win, that lifted everyone around him to do better.”

Michael Andretti, whose team gave Wheldon his first shot at the Indianapolis 500, said he hired Wheldon for his on-track potential. What the team received off the track was a bonus.

“We needed an aggressive, young guy that could step in and succeed on ovals, and Dan fit that need,” said Andretti, who owned the car that Wheldon drove to victory lane at Indianapolis in 2005. “What we got from Dan when he was out of the car was a pleasant surprise. When Dan walked in a room, he would light it up. He always went the extra mile, and he could handle any situation whether it was up on a stage, in a meeting with sponsors or talking to fans.”

But the extra-mile attitude and his comfort level in all situations wasn’t just limited to the racetrack and team business. Even in routine, daily activities, Wheldon left an impression on people everywhere. 

“Dan would call me at least six times a day, and most of those calls he seemed to be at either a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks drive-thru!” Sussmann said. “I would always chuckle at hearing an English lad chatting to the server in his best Southern drawl: ‘Heh, what's up, Sugar? Don't let me down now! Make sure its 2-percent milk.’ And somehow I just know that Dan’s coffee tasted better because of it.”

Sussmann’s business partner and Wheldon advisor, Mickey Ryan, said the ability to personalize all his interactions was very important to Wheldon.

“Dan always had a mantra, ‘It’s the little things.’ Meaning it’s the little things in life that people remember about you the most,” Ryan said. “Dan took that to heart when it came to his fans. It was the little things. It was taking the time to sign the autograph. Staying at the autograph session longer than the other drivers and signing for all the kids waiting in line. It was stopping in the pit lane to take photos and stopping his scooter in the paddock to take photos with the kids and with the fans.”

Friends of Wheldon have an endless number of stories of his antics and good humor that kept the friendships lively.

"What can I say about Dan?” said Tony Kanaan, fellow Indianapolis 500 winner, former teammate and one of Wheldon’s closest friends. “A lot of people knew Dan as the racer and competitor, which is awesome because he was a real ambassador of our sport. But few knew him as Dan the person. He was a guy that cared about the people around him. He treated friends like they were part of his family, and he loved to have people surrounding him."

And the fun that Kanaan and Wheldon had with the friendship has become legendary. The two first met at the end of the 2002 racing season when it was announced that Wheldon would join Kanaan at Andretti Autosport. Kanaan and Wheldon would spend the next nine years trading practical jokes and finding ways to gently tease each other.

Kanaan, along with three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti and former teammate Bryan Herta, best illustrated how much fun went along with being a friend of Wheldon’s when they spoke about him last fall. “Dan got hired as a backup driver: We didn’t want him, he was a brother we didn’t ask for, a guy that looked better than three of us,” Kanaan said with a smile.

“At Indianapolis one time we were all going to do a long run together,” Herta said. “Dan’s locker, like his closet, was immaculate. And he made some unfortunate comment about how sloppy our lockers were.”

“He made us look like pigs,” quipped Kanaan.

“We took Dan’s locker and threw everything out. We through things up on the roof; we threw things everywhere. Right before we were going out to run,” Herta said. 

“And we had to do the long run together, the four of us,” Kanaan said.

“So, we were out there waiting. And waiting. Where’s Dan?” said Franchitti, who first met Wheldon at a go-kart track when Wheldon was 6 years old. “It turns out that Dan was back in the garage and couldn’t quite face driving the car before the locker was back in its pre-pristine stage. And (the team manager) went back there, and at the point Dan was trying to jump up and pull his suit off the ceiling that someone had thrown up there so he could get out and run.”

“Dan said that before his locker was done and he could get his suit out of there, he wasn’t going to come out and jump in the car, so we had to come back and kind of help him,” Kanaan said.

Long before they got to Indianapolis, Wheldon and Indy 500 veteran and NBC INDYCAR analyst Townsend Bell staged one of the hottest rivalries in open-wheel racing as both were striving to reach the top level in the sport. But the deep-rooted competitive animosity eventually turned into a great friendship on and off the track.

“We were arch-enemies when we were both trying to beat each other in Firestone Indy Lights,” said Bell, whose competitive relationship with Wheldon came full-circle in 2011 when they were teammates in the Indianapolis 500. “We had a common bond early in our careers. We both were determined to make it in professional motorsports.

“At the time, I used Dan as additional motivation because, to me, he represented a misconception that non-American drivers could come over here and have a cakewalk getting to the top. But as it turns out, Dan really was just one of the guys. He lived here and was as protective about racing over here, defending our training ground and ladder system as any of us born here. It was great to be teamed with him last year, to watch him win and to study how he approaches the race and the month.”

Although the Indianapolis 500 no longer benefits from having Wheldon and his “I’m big in Indy, baby!” personality or his time-for-everyone attitude to capture the affection of the fans, his spirit continues to live through drivers who learned by watching and being around him.

“Everyone that had an opportunity to be around Dan has learned from him,” said “500” veteran Graham Rahal. “He had an ability to make the people he met feel as if they had an opportunity to sit down with him and really get to know him, all in just his first impression. Just with a handshake, an autograph or a simple hello. It didn’t matter if he was a young driver trying to get to the top or he was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Dan was always the same Dan and treated everyone as if they were special.”

Said Herta: “We all should make a priority to do the things that Dan did off the track. But no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to do it like Dan did. Dan had a special gift.”

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