Born to race, Dan Wheldon found happiness in town's slower pace

Dan Wheldon grew up in the one-pub town of Emberton, England, and was 4 years old when he first got into a go-kart and mashed the gas as hard as he could. His parents drove from track to track in a camper van. His father made his money doing plumbing and heating and then spent it on speed. His mother logged his times, faster, faster, faster. "Born to be a racer," the father would later say of his son, who won eight British youth titles before coming to this country to chase trophies, money and fame.

He was not a big man, 5-foot-9 and a slender 158 pounds, but everybody who knew him at all regarded his personality as nothing short of outsized. He could be brash. He was gregarious and quick-witted. He had an alluring English accent and a full-faced, bright-white smile, and he knew to use those two traits to the fullest.

"I've never met as captivating a personality in the sporting world," Michael Voorhees, the California photographer who was his friend, said this week.

He won 16 times on the Indy Racing League, and twice at the Indianapolis 500, the most famous race in the world. He earned some $10 million in prize money, and millions more in salary and endorsements, competing everywhere from Canada to California to Japan.

In some circles, he was considered a celebrity; in St. Petersburg, where he lived in his Snell Isle home, he was more of a regular, and he wanted it that way. He had left his home to go make another.

He got his groceries at the Publix at the Northeast Park Shopping Center. He took his cars to the Pronto Car Wash on U.S. 19. He ate at Bella Brava and Cassis on Beach Drive. He got his hair cut at J.Con Salon. He drank strawberry daiquiris at the Hurricane on Pass-A-Grille and later Cristal champagne at the downtown club Push. He got married at the Vinoy. His boys were born at Bayfront's Baby Place. His order at Lonni's was a Sunny Bird sandwich on a spinach wrap, his order at Einstein Bros. was a power bagel with peanut butter, and he went for walks around his neighborhood pulling his older son in a wagon.

Speed was his job, but he felt at ease here in St. Pete, where the slower tempo seemed to settle the 33-year-old father of two.

"He made you feel good all the time, which is very strange but wonderful," said Glenn Goldberg, his next-door neighbor. "My kids are devastated."

• • •

Wheldon's hero, before and even after he made it big himself, was Ayrton Senna, the gifted Brazilian Formula 1 driver whose legend was solidified when he died in a crash into a wall in a race in San Marino, Italy, in 1994. Senna was 34 years old.

Not quite five years later, Wheldon came to the states, still 20, to take his chance with St. Pete race team owners Jon and Brad Baytos. He lived in an apartment off Gandy Boulevard. He raced on the feeder circuits that lead to the top Indy class. He was so homesick he thought about going back. That year, he won the Formula 2000 series.

The Baytos brothers recognized what others elsewhere started to see. The gene that made Wheldon a neatnik who lined up his 300 pairs of shoes also made him meticulous in his preparations in the paddock, Brad Baytos said this week, on "any last detail that could make him go fast."

He possessed an intuitive sense of where he was on the track in relation to the other cars, a talent racing lifers say can't totally be taught. Tires new or worn? Fuel full or low? He had a way, they say, of making the sorts of almost imperceptible adjustments on which seconds are gained and races are won.

He ran a couple times in the top Indy series in 2002.

He was the rookie of the year in 2003.

He won three races in 2004.

In January of 2005, he moved into his $1.9 million, 5,700-square-foot house overlooking Coffee Pot Bayou, and three months after that, he started what would end up being his best season of racing by winning the inaugural St. Pete Grand Prix. After the race, he was at a party out on the bay, on somebody's yacht called Think Big, and his friends dared him to jump. The water below was as dark as the sky.

"How do you know what's down there?" said Kevin Savoree, one of the owners of the Grand Prix. "You don't. Right?"

Go for it, they said, and Wheldon did.

• • •

To make it in the racing business, say the Baytos brothers, a driver must have an uncommon combination of talent, training, perseverance and no small strain of showmanship. Wheldon shook hands, looked people in the eye, signed autographs, and signed, and signed. On race days, he wore his fire suit with shiny white Pumas. He had by all accounts the gift of political acumen that didn't turn phony.

"When you talked to him," former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker said, "you felt like it was the most important thing in his day."

"A lot of celebrities are somewhat aloof," said Kevin Dunn, who was the city's point person for the Grand Prix. "Dan was anything but that."

He also had, as every successful race car driver must, an inexplicable fearlessness, or at least the ability to block thoughts of the ever-present specter of catastrophe. This is of course a part of the attraction to the sport, and not just for the fans.

"I never worry about death," Wheldon once said with a shrug.

"It's the risk factor," he explained on another occasion, "that makes it so appealing to me."

In 2003, on Lap 187 at the Indy 500, he had gone airborne at 220 mph, spun into a concrete wall and skidded to a stop upside down. He wiggled out of the car and walked away unhurt. On the same track two years later, not two months after he had leapt off the Think Big, he chased down Danica Patrick late in the race and roared across the finish line to see the checkered flag waving for him, achieving a childhood dream.

• • •

He married the former Susie Behm, a Canadian blond who had been his personal assistant, in a ceremony at the Vinoy in March 2008. "My best friend," he called her. "My soul mate."

"I'm very happy," he said in an interview that August. "I'm at a great point in my life right now."

And kids?

"I would definitely like," he said with his wide smile, "to have a very large family."

Sebastian came first, in February 2009, and then Oliver, in March.

At work, at the track, after having won the series points championship in 2005, he finished second in 2006, then fourth in 2007 and 2008. He switched teams before 2009 and then had his two most challenging years, failing to win a race in either season. This year, he didn't have a regular ride, in racing parlance, partly because of sponsorship difficulties throughout the sport and partly because he had the financial security to be a bit picky.

He did some announcing on race broadcasts. He helped Indy Car test new, safer cars, set to debut next season, joking that he was a "test dummy." He spent more time than he ever had with his family here in St. Pete.

"He just glowed when he talked about his kids," said Adam Patterson, the general manager at the Einstein Bros. on Fourth Street N.

He went back to England to visit with his mother and father and sister and three brothers. He brought his next-door neighbor's kids toy cars that were replicas of his.

He started trying to raise awareness for Alzheimer's because his mother, in her mid 50s, was diagnosed with the disease in 2009. She sometimes no longer knew who he was. He told people to whom he felt close how unbearably hard this was and how much he loved her.

This past May, he signed a one-race contract with a team owned by a friend to try to win another Indy 500, and he was running second on the last lap when the leader hit the wall. He sped past the wreckage for a thrilling and unlikely win. He knelt to kiss the track's famous bricks. He held Sebastian and he beamed. He stood next to a reporter from ABC to do an interview on national TV. He had just become one of only 18 men ever to win the Indy 500 more than once. The winner's check was nearly $2.6 million.

"I want to say hi to my family back home," he said, and here his voice broke, "and my mother …" The victorious Wheldon cried for his Mum.

• • •

In the week and a half before the last race of his life, he got his hair cut at J.Con on Fourth Street, and he talked to stylist Arlene Sorensen about his kids, "how cute they are, how beautiful they are, how they look like his wife," she later said. He called Savoree, of the St. Pete Grand Prix, whose 17-year-old son is in the hospital with leukemia, and he left a message saying that if he needed anything, anything, he would do it.

"A message like a father would speak," Savoree said this week.

He went to the Powerhouse Gym at Channelside in Tampa to work out and one of the trainers asked him to record on a flip cam some of his thoughts on what made him successful. Drive, Wheldon said, and perseverance. He gave a smile and a thumbs up and the screen went black.

The night before the race in Las Vegas, a week ago now, he and his wife and some others went out to dinner at the Palms casino with the CEO of Big Machine Records, and he told them some of the drivers were uncharacteristically rattled heading into the race. There were 34 cars, more than usual, too many on too small a track, they thought, traveling at speeds too high. "You know," Wheldon said, "I hope nobody gets hurt."

He went with his wife after dinner to the Palms' tattoo parlor and they got his-and-hers on the insides of their wrists, D.W. on hers, S.W. on his.

On Sunday morning, the day of the race, he signed a contract with Michael Andretti's team to race a full schedule next year. He was back to driving full-time.

He got in his car, the No. 77, set to start 34th of 34 as part of a gimmicky promotion in which he could win $2.5 million for himself and $2.5 million for a fan if he managed to go from last to first. Voorhees, the photographer who was his friend, caught his eye and flashed him a peace sign. Wheldon flashed one back, and then another.

ABC's announcers up in the broadcast booth did an interview with him as the cars warmed their tires and followed the pace car just before the race began. He sounded confident. Calm. He said he could win. "This," he told them, "is going to be a spectacle." It was his kind of track. He was better on the ovals than he was on the windier road courses. Those who knew his style thought he was going to try to gain as much ground as he could as early as possible. He passed 10 cars in the first 11 laps.

The ABC crew shifted then to the view from the camera rigged inside his cockpit. Everybody watching saw what Wheldon saw. Up ahead, at 225 mph, two tires touched. Cars started to skid. A burst of smoke.

Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Matt Baker and news researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report, which used information from the Daily Telegraph of London, the Express of Scotland, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and CMT.com. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com.

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Born to race, Dan Wheldon found happiness in town's slower pace 10/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 1:46pm]

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