Reuters

Dan Wheldon remembered before landmark 100th Indianapolis 500

Dan Wheldon remembered before landmark 100th Indianapolis 500

24/05/2016 at 11:34Updated 24/05/2016 at 15:52

When 33 cars rumble over the legendary yard of bricks to begin the 100th running of the historic Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, every driver will be embarking on a blast into the past.

This year, perhaps more than any other before, the greats of the sport to have competed in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ will be remembered and honoured.

One of those select few to have kissed the yard of bricks and drank milk in Victory Lane on more than one occasion was British driver Dan Wheldon, who won the famous race in 2005 and again, fittingly, during the 100th anniversary of the event in 2011.

When Wheldon tragically lost his life after a huge accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway only months after that historic second victory, a shining star of the sport was lost.

Among those to have known the popular Englishman is motorsport journalist Andy Hallbery. His book, co-authored with American writer Jeff Olson, ‘Lionheart – Remembering Dan Wheldon’, goes on sale worldwide this weekend.

Although Wheldon developed a rivalry with Jenson Button, amongst others, during the early stages of his open-wheel racing career, Hallbery finds it something of a shame that he did not necessarily gain the credit and respect he deserved after his first Indianapolis 500 title.

Dan Wheldon of England kisses the yard of bricks as his son Sebastian looks on during a photo session the day after winning the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500

Dan Wheldon of England kisses the yard of bricks as his son Sebastian looks on during a photo session the day after winning the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500Reuters

“The sad thing I think is despite his success, how little known he was in Europe,” Hallbery told Eurosport. “He won the Indy 500 in 2005, yet it barely got any space in the British newspapers. He remained unknown, yet he was the first British driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill did it in 1967 – almost 40 years before. Even Nigel Mansell never won it.

“That 2005 year he won the Indy 500 and the IndyCar title and was hot property. He was on the radar with BMW and Sauber in Formula 1, to the point there were contracts drawn up. The deal was initially as test driver, with a view to replacing Jacques Villeneuve. Dan decided his career was better placed staying racing, so he committed to IndyCar and had a successful career. Robert Kubica took the drive Wheldon turned down, and that eventually went to Sebastian Vettel….”

Who knows whether Wheldon would have achieved the extraordinary success of Vettel had fate dealt a different hand. But one thing we know for certain is that winning the prestigious Indianapolis 500 was the making of the man. Wheldon is one of only nine two-time winners of the event, with seven drivers having completed a treble and just three four-time winners since the inaugural race in 1911.

And Hallbery is in no doubt that Wheldon would have added to his tally had disaster not struck in Las Vegas.

Dan Wheldon of England takes the traditional drink of milk after winning the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 auto race in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 29, 2011

Dan Wheldon of England takes the traditional drink of milk after winning the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 auto race in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 29, 2011Reuters

“Dan was one of the best on ovals – especially at Indy. He had a respect for the place like no other, and worked tirelessly all month on the car to make it the best it could be for the race. He also had the ability to get everyone on the team believe they could win, and for that they went that extra yard for him.”

If Wheldon had that magical ability to get the very best out of his team and the equipment available to him, he also had that wonderful gift of charisma. Loved by fans and his contemporaries, it was clear that Wheldon treasured what he was doing and did his very best to share that passion with others.

“He cared about his fans too, always making time. A very poignant memory in the book comes with a tale about his annual visit to the Peyton Manning Children’s Cancer Hospital in Indianapolis. He would get the kids there to design helmet colour schemes, and he would choose one to get painted up and wear in a later race. His visits became legendary for their pranks on staff that helped cheer up the kids and put smiles on their faces.

“Anyone who met him for an autograph was made to feel they’d been best friends all their life - and once you had met him, you were. That is rare from an athlete at the top of their game nowadays, and a skill that made him so popular.”

Whilst it’s undeniably true that the majority of European motorsport fans will be more interested in seeing how the likes of Hamilton, Rosberg and new hotshoe Max Verstappen fare around the tight confines of Monaco this weekend than where Max Chilton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finish around the huge oval amphitheatre of Indianapolis, one thing is undeniable. The Indianapolis 500 weekend is a very special occasion. With attendances thought to reach in excess of 300,000 people on race day, it has justifiable claims to being the largest single-day sporting event in the world. This year’s celebratory event is sold out for the first time in decades.

Monaco, it certainly isn’t. But any fan lucky enough to be there on the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 or any driver fortunate enough to cross the yard of bricks in first place after 500 miles of tough, wheel-to-wheel racing may come close to gaining the same respect and a love for the place as felt by an Englishman they called ‘Lionheart’.

" Dan Wheldon loved Indy, a fact borne out by his extraordinary record there, adds Hallbery. As his life-long friend and a three-time Indy 500 winner Franchitti puts it, ‘Dan was 10 feet tall every time he walked through those gates; he loved that place.’"

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