On Monday, St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon came back to his adopted hometown for a quick media tour, two days after he qualified sixth for the Indianapolis 500. Sunday's race is the native Englishman's first this year; the 2005 Indy 500 and IndyCar series champion is without a full-time ride. He talked about favorite hangouts, enjoying time at home, and shaking off Versus commentator Bob Jenkins' comment that Wheldon, at 32, had gray hair.
I'm just looking here, what was Jenkins talking about? I don't see any gray.
Yeah, that was on Saturday. I had to correct him. I was in the booth with him (for a guest shot) and I said, "Gray? That old?" So he apologized, he said I was his son. (Laughs) No, he's a good guy.
And you're going to be doing some TV work with Versus coming up?
Yeah, they announced that without my signature on the contract yet. But yeah, that's the intention. I'm actually going to do Texas (Firestone Twin 275s on June 11), Iowa (Iowa Corn Indy 250 on June 25) and Toronto (Honda Indy Toronto on July 10). Unless any opportunities come up in the series itself but right now I've committed to them for that. I'll be honest, it's not my No. 1 choice, I'd much prefer to be in the race car. But it'll be a fun thing to do.
I think maybe what Bob was referring to is that you're a veteran who knows his way around a Brickyard. In qualifying, a lot of guys with one-off deals not only qualified on the first day but qualified comfortably, top half of the field. Is it just experience at the Brickyard that makes the difference?
That's a good question. I've won Indianapolis before, Buddy Rice has won Indianapolis before, Townsend Bell goes very well around Indy. The car has been the same for a while, you've got the same Honda engine, a consistent tire, so if you collaborate with a good team — it's not easy to get back into. But I think I was flat-out around there after about three laps (in practice). For me, I feel very comfortable around the track. In the environment created for me by Bryan Herta Autosport, it's not only an environment I'm very happy in but it's also got great people. Bryan is different to most. He's very up front, he's very honest. He's obviously a very good friend, he's been a teammate. When I received some offers to do Indianapolis, I ran it by him and asked him flat-out, do you think I'll have a car that can contend, and he told me yes and so I believed him.
Is your attitude or mental approach toward Indy different after missing the first few races of the year?
No, I think the mental approach was the same. I think not racing the first four races and having that time off since (the 2010 finale at) Homestead (Oct. 2), it's the first time ever in my career that I have been in that situation. It was good in a way. A lot of people are like, "It was good? How can it be good?" Well, I have been in IndyCar nearly 10 years now. … I got to spend some quality time with the family and my wife (Susie), and I had another son (their second, Oliver, joining Sebastian, 2). I got to go back to Europe to see my mother and father and brothers and sister. I got to do things like regular people do. So yeah, it was bad for me (not to race) but I've still been blessed with a great life.
The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is your hometown race now. How difficult was it to sit out in March?
It was very difficult, to the point that I didn't want to be there on Sunday. I was born and raised in England but the people in this city have adopted me. I have so much support. The people there were absolutely fantastic toward me. On things like Twitter as well the people were so nice. I'm not going to lie, it was incredibly difficult, you almost feel out of place.
Where did you wind up on race day?
At my house, with my wife and some friends. We could hear them (racing). And I know enough about race day to know that the owners and the drivers, they're focused on their deal, so I didn't want to be in anybody's way either.
I saw you hanging out in the Ganassi pits on Saturday.
Yeah, I've got a great relationship with that team (which Wheldon drove for from 2006 to '08). Scott Dixon's a good friend. I went to Long Beach as well and that's where I ended up watching.
Speaking of Twitter, you have been talking up the Lightning a little bit. Have you been able to go to any games?
No, I haven't and I'm so bummed about it. It's funny, but even with one race, the preparation is unbelievable. Actually (my trainer in Tampa) and I wanted to grab a sandwich, so we stopped by the Garage (Bar and Grill). They always laugh at me when I go, it's called the gar-AZH but I call it the GAR-azh, so everybody laughs at me. But we watched (the Lightning) win. (The Lightning) are impressive. They've been on the ropes a couple of times, but they fought through it. And I've been to a couple of functions where Mr. (Vinny) Lecavalier has been there. He seems like a very nice guy and a great leader of that team.
Any favorite spots around here?
I always go to Lonni's (in St. Petersburg) for lunch. The Powerhouse Gym in Tampa. Then we go to the GAR-azh or gar-AZH, whatever you want to call it. I guess I go to Bella Brava and I spend a lot of time at the Vinoy (both in St. Petersburg). And I'm always at Dunkin' Donuts. I like coffee. And I love their coffee. So I go there a lot, the one on Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), all the girls know me there. When they hear my voice (at the drive-through), because they know my accent, they (say), "Oh, it's you Dan?" That's about it, I guess I'm at my accountant's office a lot.
What's the thing you look for that's different at Indy when you go there with a new team?
It's different at Indy because you get more time to work with a new group. So that's helped. Because of my relationship with Bryan, it's almost like the mechanics feed off that. … More so for the guys than me, the biggest thing is going to be pit stops. They've not been doing pit stops. And obviously (pit stops are) incredibly important at Indianapolis. So that's going to be tough.
Can you describe the collaboration between Bryan Herta and Sam Schmidt?
Our garages are next to one another. It's the Bryan Herta Autosport guys, it's Bruno Junqueira's car (from last year's 500). My guys put that together with the assistance of their guys. But from an engineering standpoint … we all debrief as one, and that would be myself, (pole-sitter) Alex Tagliani and Townsend Bell. It's worked out well, Bryan has a relationship with (lead engineer) Allen McDonald, I've had a relationship with Allen McDonald, I get along well with Alex and Townsend, so it's been a very open environment that's been good for all of us.
You've never been in that bump-day situation of wondering if you're going to make the field. (Including this year, in his nine starts at Indy, his worst spot on the grid was 18th.) Can you empathize with the drivers going through it?
Oh man. I definitely wouldn't want to be part of that. I was in the pit lane a lot and just seeing the stress on people's faces. It was unbelievable. You're talking big names. It was incredibly intense. I was helping a little bit on the broadcast with Versus, and when Danica (Patrick) went on the track, we were all quiet. Because if Danica didn't make the race it would be unbelievable. … I watched the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl was nowhere as exciting as (Sunday).