Dan Wheldon pauses inside the doorway of his home in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast and pops his shoes off and into their spot in a grid pattern of sandals and sneakers. He inspects a large cardboard box with shipping labels, only because he would have fallen over it otherwise. "No clue, mate," he says, shaking his head. "That's got to be Sebastian's." Wheldon has been away for five days fulfilling sponsor obligations and testing for his new Panther Racing IndyCar team at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. "Ah, good. He's up," Wheldon says, grinning and quick-stepping over tiny gates meant to hem in Maverick, a long-haired chihuahua, and Molly, a toy poodle.
In a sitting room where broad windows frame a view of Coffee Pot Bayou sleeps the center of the universe, Sebastian Daniel Wheldon, born Feb. 1. Dan Wheldon doesn't much try to deny he's a doting father. A quick summation of any of his previous five sentences will generally contain 10 usages of the words "Sebastian" and "cute."
Wheldon has already scooped the little boy out wife Susie's arms and is focusing his gaze on his son when the subject quickly turns to diapers.
"Dan was lucky enough to be here, like, the first 16 days after he was born," Susie says, smiling. "He did 95 percent of the diaper changes."
The Wheldon home is pristine by single, childless, affluent standards.
Framed mementos of a wildly successful first seven years in the Indy Racing League hang along the stairway from the den to the second floor. But just up that stairway, past where the new Italian cabinets will go, in a brown and yellow room with a monkey on the wall, a newborn shook Wheldon's innate sense of clean to its core … and it was, well, cute. Even on a new carpet.
"The first diaper change that I do at home on this changing station, I get his diaper down, cold air hits him, he pees right on my brand new carpet," says Wheldon, laughing. (He honed his diapering skills changing a sister, Holly, who is 15 years younger.) "What ya gonna do? It's funny, because when it's your child, you don't care."
Wheldon's friends, hearing this, are floored. "Knowing Dan the way I do, it's funny to see him as a father," said former teammate Tony Kanaan, who has an 18-month-old son. "More responsible, talking like a dad now. It's a different guy."
Wheldon has much more now to lose than before — before the international star yielded to marriage and family and started planning that his month-old son will attend Shorecrest Academy.
"If anything, I think it would make you more motivated," Wheldon said of having a child. "The last thing I want my child to see is Dad running around in the middle of the pack (on the track). That would really upset me. And that would upset him. I would be embarrassed to take him to school with kids saying, 'Hey, how'd your dad do this weekend?' 'Well, he finished fifth or sixth.'
"So I'm pretty sure it would have the opposite effect of what people think."
There is no shortage of motivation for Wheldon, who begins his eighth IndyCar season this weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with his third team, at age 30.
He entered the series as a prodigy on the ovals that made up the entire IndyCar series in 2003, finishing second in points with three wins in 2004, winning the championship with six wins in 2005 and landing second with two wins in 2006. He lived big and made a lot of friends along the way.
Not many staged photographs are in his den, mostly candid snaps that sometimes catch him off guard when he notices them for the first time in a while. To the left of a souvenir brick from Indianapolis Motor Speedway's famed yard of them, under a bronzed pair of racing shoes, is a photo of Wheldon, highlighted hair and all at age 26, laughing with Kanaan and former boss Michael Andretti, from the season he won his only series title and the Indianapolis 500.
"Wow," Wheldon said, then paused, laugh lines exposed by squinting at the frame. "Who's that guy?"
Though he remains gregarious and committed to what he does, Wheldon has changed. He left Andretti Green Racing after that '05 season, looking, he said, for a new challenge. After finishing second with Chip Ganassi in '06, he slipped to fourth in '07 and '08, coinciding with the IRL introducing more nonoval courses. (Now seven of 17 events are held off the circuits where Wheldon has won 14 of 15 career races.)
By last summer, Wheldon and Ganassi had apparently decided a change was necessary.
So Wheldon, newly married to his former publicist, Susie Behm, went looking for a home. He found one in Panther Racing, the one-car team owned by John Barnes that had given Wheldon his first two IndyCar starts in 2002. "You walk in there and it feels like family," Wheldon said.
Panther won two championships with Sam Hornish in '01 and '02 before he left for Team Penske, but it hasn't reached Victory Lane since '05 with Tomas Scheckter. Wheldon, knowing how long ago 2005 was, thinks they can change that.
Fatherhood has changed Wheldon's assessment of how well he will avoid becoming a stage parent.
Former AGR teammate Bryan Herta used to pledge that he would never "become one of those go-cart dads," Wheldon said. "And now he's more into go-carting than ever, so I am sure I am going to be like that, where I'm super intense."
Wheldon has jokingly broached with Susie the subject of starting a carting team "because I need to get everything ironed out, so when (Sebastian) starts, he's ready to go."
But Susie might be advised not to take that as a joke.
"I think back to when my dad and I did it, and we have a lot of good stories," Wheldon said of karting. "It's good bonding for father and son."