By Levi King
(August 2005) Dan Wheldons rush to the top of the Indy Racing League has been befitting of a race car driver fast and fierce. The IRL points leader is the favorite for the Amber Alert Portal Indy 300 Presented by GPS Industries, set for Sunday, Aug. 14, at the Kentucky Speedway. Wheldon placed third at the race last year.
Photo by Michael Voorhees
for the IRL
Dan Wheldon leads
the points race after
winning four races
Since arriving in America in 1999 at age 20, the Brit has captured Rookie of the Year honors in each of the four series he has raced. The first of these was the U.S. Ford Formula 2000 Championship, where Wheldon boasted 11 podium finishes and six victories.
The following year he advanced to the Toyota Atlantic Championship to record another seven podium finishes. In 2001, Wheldon entered the Indy Lights Championship, where he earned two victories and seven podium finishes, making him the championship runner-up as well as Rookie of the Year.
Wheldon got his first taste of the Indy Racing League in 2002 when Panther Racing tapped him to drive in just two races. The following year, Andretti Green Racing offered Wheldon a spot on the team. However, owner Michael Andretti stipulated that he would race the first four events of the season himself, retiring after the Indianapolis 500. After just two races of the 2003 season, Andretti Green teammate Dario Franchitti suffered a back injury in a motorcycle accident, and Wheldon substituted for him before taking over permanently for Andretti just two races later.
Entering the seasons final race at the Texas Motor Speedway, Wheldon trailed fellow rookie Roger Yasukawa by just four points. There Wheldon recorded his highest finish of the season, taking third place and narrowly edging out Yasukawa for the Bombardier Rookie of the Year title and taking 11th place in the overall points standings. Not bad considering Wheldon drove in only 14 of the 16 races.
Last year, Wheldon continued his rise, capturing two poles and his first three IRL victories at Japan, Richmond and Nazareth, Pa. He led the Indy 500 for 26 laps before slipping to a third-place finish. Wheldons tenacity and skill made him runner-up in the 2004 points competition, just 85 points behind champion Tony Kanaan.
This year has been Wheldons best yet. In Marchs season opener at Homestead-Miami, he qualified 11th but burst from the Andretti Green stables to capture a surprisingly leisurely victory. Wheldon led 158 of 200 laps, setting the stage for a season of accomplishments.
The Brit hardly took time to celebrate. He finished sixth at Phoenix just two weeks later. April 3 saw another triumph for Wheldon at the inaugural running of the St. Petersburg Honda Grand Prix. The race wound through 14 turns in the streets of St. Petersburg, just blocks from Wheldons current home. Wheldon worked his way toward the front and with only eight laps remaining edged past Kanaan when Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe brushed cars. The race resulted in a top four sweep for AGR, the first ever in IndyCar Series history. Wheldons teammates Kanaan, Franchitti and Bryan Herta rounded out the four spots. The city holds a certain meaning for Wheldon, since he began his U.S. racing career there.
Photo by Chris Jones for the IRL
Dan Wheldon has been hot this
season in the Indy Racing League.
To accomplish all of this in St. Petersburg is very special.
Later that month, the No. 26 team relied on a shrewd fuel strategy to earn a second consecutive victory at the Indy Japan 300. Wheldon hustled to the front early and was in third place in lap 195 of 200 when several cars pitted for fuel. Leader Tomas Scheckter ran out on lap 198, and Wheldon clinched the checkered flag, running out of fuel on his victory lap.
The world was watching on May 29 when many fans expected rookie Danica Patrick to become the first female driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
The 89th running was the most exciting in years, with 27 lead changes. Wheldon and Patrick battled fiercely in the last thirty laps, trading the lead twice before a crowd of more than 250,000. Patrick led with just seven laps to go but lost fuel pressure and finished fourth. Wheldon cruised past her and on to victory over second place Vitor Meira by only 0.1302 second.
No more talk of that stupid curse, was owner Michael Andrettis reaction, referring to his failure to win in his 14 attempts as a driver at the Indianapolis 500. The victory was the first for a British driver since Graham Hill in 1966 and made Wheldon the series first driver ever to win four of the first five races of a season.
In June, Wheldon followed with a sixth-place finish at Texas and a fifth-place finish at Richmond, keeping a comfortable lead in the points standings.
Wheldon qualified 13th at Kansas for the July 3 Argent Mortgage Indy 300, but maneuvered to fifth place by lap five. Smart pit timing again positioned Wheldon for the win, but Kanaan passed him on lap 198 of 200. In a photo finish, Kanaan held Wheldon off for a victory by just 0.012 second.
Distance: 200 laps, 300 miles (1.5-mile tri-oval)
Qualifying: Sat., Aug. 13, begins at 4:30 p.m.
Race: 3:45 p.m. (EDT) Sunday, Aug. 14
TV: ABC-TV (live)
Admission: $20 Saturday; $40-$70 Sunday.
Gates open at 10 a.m. Saturday;
10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Also at the Speedway: Infiniti Pro Series
Bluegrass 100. (67 laps/100 miles) at
3 p.m. Saturday. Country music concert by SHeDAISY
at 1 p.m. Sunday on the
B-105 Country Soundstage.
Other IndyCar Drivers to Watch
Sam Hornish Jr., Defiance, Ohio. Won twice in 2005
and a previous winner at Kentucky.
Dario Franchitti, Nashville, Tenn. Third in driver points
with six top-5 finishes, including one victory.
Tony Kanaan, Miami, Fla. The Brazilian won at Kansas
and has six top-5 finishes.
Tim Steele, Coopersville, Mich.
Wheldon started fifth at Nashvilles July 16 Firestone Indy 200, when the qualifying session was rained out and starting positions were based on fastest laps from practice sessions. However, Wheldon had handling problems early in the race and pitted under the first caution for adjustments. The handling improved, but Wheldon was forced to pit again when he encountered a problem with his rear bearings. The crew was unable to repair the malfunctioning rear-right upright, and Wheldon was forced to end his race early, taking 21st place. Franchitti claimed the victory, with Sam Hornish Jr. in a close second.
The following weekend at the Milwaukee Mile, Wheldon qualified fourth and led for 58 laps before slipping to a fifth-place finish. Hornish finished first, and Franchitti, Scheckter and Kanaan followed in that order, tightening the points race significantly. After 10 of 17 races, Wheldon leads with 377 points. Hornish and Franchitti are tied at 309, and Kanaan has 306.