Remembering Dan Wheldon
IndyCar returns to the track Sunday for the first time since Dan Wheldon's death
Teammates, friends remember him for his upbeat personality and focus on family
All agree that we're unlikely to see another driver like the 2-time Indy 500 champ
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On Sunday, March 25, the IZOD IndyCar Series will return to the track for the first time since that dreadful day at Las Vegas on Oct. 16, 2011, when Dan Wheldon was killed in one of the biggest crashes in the sports history.
To commemorate Wheldon's life, SI.com's Bruce Martin spoke with five people who knew him best. Former teammate and close friend Scott Dixon, former teammate Dario Franchitti, fellow driver Tony Kanaan, former team owner and IndyCar driving legend Michael Andretti and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull offer a unique look at what made the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion such a popular person both in and out of the race car and how his short life left such a lasting impact.
SI.com: What was your first interaction with Dan Wheldon like?
Scott Dixon: I met him for the first time in 2001 when he first came and raced Indy Lights for Pac-West. He was a typical Brit -- confident and a little bit cocky, but that is how they are bred over there. He was determined. That was the first thing I remembered was his confidence and his determination. I think the personality was always the biggest thing about Dan. It was no different from the first day you met him until the last time I spoke with him. He was very good at working the sponsors and an all-around great driver in many ways.
Dario Franchitti: My first interaction with Dan was when he was six years old and I just started racing karts. I went to a track called Rye House down by London to race there. ... I remember at lunchtime it was quiet and the next thing we realized this tiny kid jumps in the kart and proceeds to drive the heck out of it. That was Dan. That was the first time I ever saw him drive. I watched him win the British championships two or three years later. My brother Marino was racing against him at that point, too. I was very, very impressed at his talent behind the wheel. And he still had that cocky gleam in his eye even at that age.
Tony Kanaan: I met him at the Andretti shop. Kim Green at the time was the biggest supporter of Dan's and we hired him as a test driver for Honda ... and he was going to join the team in 2003. That was at the end of the 2002 that I met him. He looked, as we all said before, kinda cocky in the beginning to me.
Michael Andretti: It was at the end of 2002. I thought he was a very personable guy. He was Dan. He was a personable guy and a guy that you felt would do well. We ended up hiring him that year and [he] took the place of myself in 2003. I don't think we had those expectations. We just wanted to get a young rookie that we felt we could groom. ... Did we expect him to go out and win right away? No. We expected him to learn. Dan did a great job of using the tools that we had here and really going to school with his teammates and taking advantage of that to the fullest to the point in 2004 that he was competitive everywhere and had a shot at the championship.
Mike Hull: Lots of enthusiasm. That, to me, was every interaction I had with him. He was enthusiastically engaged in wanting to drive race cars and wanting to be part of a team that had race cars. Engaged enthusiasm was my first and every interaction I had with Dan.
SI.com: Will there ever be another personality like him? If not, why not?
Dixon: I think it's pretty hard because everybody is very unique in their personalities and over a lifetime you can say people are the same as this person, but I don't think there will ever be anyone quite like Dan. He was a true professional and obviously a very charismatic person. He was really happy with his life at that point and it showed. But personality-wise there will never be anyone like Dan.
Franchitti: I think he was an original. I really do because he had that way about him. Some thought it was cocky but it was a spirit and personality. He was so alive. He was so full of energy and mischief and his interaction with the fans was something special. And the fact he was a two-time Indy 500 winner and a champion -- that's a very special combination. I don't think we will see his like again.
Kanaan: I don't think so because everybody has their own personality. With all the good and the bad that he had, I don't know any other human being that had as much as he did in terms of being so nice and neat and tidy and happy all the time, but when he was mad he was really mad. He was just unique.
Andretti: You never know, but he had a unique personality for sure. He is one of those guys that when he walked into a room the whole room lit up. He had that type of personality and made everybody feel good. He was just a special guy.
Hull: Will there ever be another personality like Dan? I don't know. Will there ever be another one like Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmy Vasser, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti? Probably not. Each person that drives our race cars is very different, but they have an extreme desire to succeed and Dan had that.
SI.com: What inspired you most about him?
Dixon: The attention to detail and the personality was the big thing. Being teammates, you learn a lot about each other, but we were so different in personalities that in some ways a little bit rubbed off on each of us which made us better race car drivers. But his personality rubbed off on me to be a little more open and more understanding about the different areas of racing and promotion. That is the biggest thing that he inspired me and helped me with the most. But the attention to detail and the way the guy could drive a car around an oval was pretty unbelievable to watch.
Franchitti: It was his love of the Indianapolis 500. In a selfish way that inspired me and really showed me why this race is so important to so many people. It increased my love of that race, too.
Kanaan: The way he conducted his life, especially after he lost a job ... and how happy the guy was even at St. Pete. [Panther Racing replaced Wheldon with J.R. Hildebrand at the beginning of the 2011 season.] He was sad that he wasn't driving, but he conducted himself thinking positive all the time. As you remember I was in the same boat as him all winter long and I didn't take it as good as he did.
Andretti: Two things. There was something about Dan that he always figured out a way to win. He was a winner. He figured out how to get into Victory Lane. No. 2 was his personality. He was great with the sponsors. The sponsors loved him and the team loved him. He was an all-around pleasure to have on the team.
Hull: His positive attitude. On his worst day his positive attitude made everyone better in the room.
SI.com: What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
Dixon: It would be the Indianapolis 500 in 2005, but more so the 2011 Indianapolis 500 because it was the little team that nobody thought could win and they did. Whatever the circumstances they won the race and did a hell of a job doing it with the team he was with. But personally it was his family, his two boys, marrying Susie. He was the perfect dad. Those are the biggest things.
Franchitti: Off track it's marrying Susie and having the boys, no doubt. That is a bigger accomplishment than anything he achieved on the track. I think his first Indianapolis 500 win in 2005 and the championship were very impressive, but what he did last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was very, very impressive. I would go with winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in a one-off effort with a small team.
Kanaan: When he decided to marry Susie and make a family. She was always around; she used to work with him, and he chose the right person to be with and the right person to be the mother of his kids. On the track it was his last 500 because of the situation he was in. With a one-race deal he came in there and won it.
Andretti: I would say in 2005 when he won the championship. He beat really good teammates. People can say the team had an advantage that year, but his teammates had the exact same equipment as him. Dario and Tony and Bryan were his teammates and he beat them, so that, to me, was pretty impressive.
Hull: Most racing people immediately jump to the conclusion that it would be winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, but, knowing Dan the way I got to know him, I would say his answer would be he had a great family and looked after his family the way you should. And to me that is even greater than what he did on the racetrack.
SI.com: What is one thing about Wheldon that most people wouldn't know?
Dixon: He was pretty well-known. I think everybody knew he had a love for his family and kids and was a real family person and close to his family in England and close to Susie's family as well. Everybody knew about his insane cleanliness and his attention to detail, whether it was racing or lining his shoes up in his closest. He was just an all-around good guy. He was just a genuine person, and with Dan what you saw is what he was.
Franchitti: The last three years of his life he was a very thoughtful person. I think he always was before, but he wasn't afraid to show it once he got married.
Kanaan: That he had more hair products than anybody else. He had more than 10. He was the most fastidious male that I have ever known, definitely.
Andretti: One thing I really enjoyed about Dan in the last year or two when he got married was the way he settled down and how he matured. He loved being a dad. He loved being a husband. I don't know if other people know that or not, but I was really impressed with the way he settled down.
Hull: I don't know what to say about Dan other than, for me personally, he was a very special person and a very good friend.
SI.com: What's your fondest memory of him?
Dixon: The fondest memories for me would be away from the track. The friendship. Most of the moments away from the track when we spent time together with families. The wedding was a fantastic one between Susie and him. Most of the memories away from racing when we could hang out and talk and shoot the breeze are what I remember the most.
Franchitti: In 2010, when I won the Indianapolis 500, I was standing on the Yard of Bricks afterward and he came up with a big ol' smile on his face and gave me a big hug and congratulated me and gave me a well done and all kinds of things. The second part to that story is when he won last year, he was coming past for the parade lap in the back of the pace car afterward with his wife and [team owner] Bryan Herta and [team manager] Steve Newey and the pace car stopped, and I was able to give him a big hug and share that with him just like he shared it with me the year before. Just to see the emotion on his face. That, to me, was my favorite memory to see how much that meant to him to win that second Indianapolis 500 and to go tell him how proud of him I was of what he had achieved.
Kanaan: I have many but one of my favorite ones was at Fontana, Calif., when I won the championship in 2004, he was the first car to park beside my car and at the time we still had the Texas race so I couldn't really celebrate the championship until Texas. I have a picture where we are both standing on top of the chassis -- him standing on his car and me standing on mine. He was grabbing my face with my helmet on and I was grabbing his face and I looked into his eyes and he really meant it. He was really happy for me.
Andretti: On the track he is the guy that brought us our first Indy 500 win. That was very, very special.
Hull: My fondest memory of Dan is winning the very first race with him in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the first IndyCar race for us at Homestead in 2006. He won the 24 Hours with Scott Dixon and Casey Mears and then won the IndyCar race a few weeks later in his first start for us. My fondest memory of him was winning and winning together and Daytona was certainly a big part of it.