Memories of Dan Wheldon flow as Grand Prix of St. Petersburg nears

Dan Wheldon was fussy.

He was cocky and bold. He was precocious and determined.

He was a champion and a mentor.

He was a man who greatly enjoyed winning his first Indianapolis 500. He was wholly devoted to his wife, Susie, and two sons. And they, a major part of his maturation, were with him for his second Indy 500 victory just 10 months ago.

He was a much-loved figure in the series and in his adopted St. Petersburg community, toning down that cockiness yet losing none of the confidence a top-flight racing driver simply must have.

That's part of the picture that emerges when several of Wheldon's closest friends in racing talk about him. Those who knew him well will, of course, recall with sadness Wheldon's death in October's IndyCar event at Las Vegas at age 33. Those same people also can't help but reveal their affection for the man called "little brother" by his old teammates. These are the people who can't help but smile when they think of the memories.

They are the ones who return this weekend to his adopted city to compete in this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — the home of the newly renamed Dan Wheldon Way in Turn 10.

Dario Franchitti

Franchitti was Wheldon's teammate at Andretti Green in 2003-05 and replaced him at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2009.

"I knew Dan since he was 6 years old. When I was racing carts, his dad, Clive, would take him to the track, and Clive raced in the senior classes. He would bring Dan along as just a little 6-year-old, jumped in (Clive's) cart and drove the wheels off it. Him and Marino, my little brother, were friends throughout their whole lives. When they were teenagers they used to get in trouble together. …

"We picked on him mercilessly (at Andretti Green). We really did. It was three against one. It wasn't fair. We'd do whatever we could to get a rise out of him. And he made the mistake of reacting. … We would just give him such a hard time whether it was wrecking his hotel rooms or any of those things. He was so particular about every aspect. At Indy, unpacking his bag and throwing everything everywhere. He'd come in and have to pack it all back up before he'd get in his car to practice. …

"He reminds me very much of my friend Greg Moore (who died in a crash during the 1999 CART season finale). He had that same thing, he'd walk in a room and the room would just light up. Just this ball of energy. Dan was like that."

Scott Dixon

Dixon was Wheldon's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006-08 and says they were not friends at first. But by last year when Wheldon did not race in St. Petersburg, he hung out in Dixon's pit stall on Saturday.

"I remember the first year, 2006, we went out one of the nights during the month of May and that's kind of when we made the transition of becoming good friends. We were both very different. I was very quiet and didn't talk much. Dan, as everybody knows, was a big personality. So it took a little bit for us to mesh. … At the end we worked seamlessly. I think both of us were smart enough to work out that it's better to work together and try and create the same goal and make the team better and ultimately the results will be better.

"The way to sum Dan up is, if I had a good weekend and maybe won the race and he had a crappy weekend, he'd be the first person in victory circle. There's lots of good memories. Lots that I can't even talk about."

Tony Kanaan

Kanaan was teammates with Wheldon at Andretti Green Racing from 2003-05.

"He was always asking questions. That's probably one of the things that made him great.

"When he used to get nervous or lie he started to blink a lot and grab his nose. We'd see that and we'd ask him, 'Come on Dan. Be honest now.' (And) he had more hair products than any girl I ever met in my life.

"Our most memorable moment had to be in St. Petersburg when we went 1-2-3-4 (as a team in 2005).

"I knew right away he was going to be a champion."

Graham Rahal

Rahal raced against Wheldon the past four seasons. He also spearheaded the effort to hold an auction for Wheldon's family, an effort started with a Twitter post just hours after the aborted Las Vegas race.

"Obviously he was very funny and fun overall guy. … The thing I appreciated most about him was actually in Vegas (last year) he came to my foundation go-cart race and had a good time with us. That was actually probably the last time I really spent any sort of time with him. He was always a very generous guy, always more than willing to help out and give you advice.

"We just had a good time (at Rahal's Las Vegas charity event). … It was nice for him to come. We ask a lot of drivers, and we got very few that actually showed up. He was one of them who stood up and said he'd be there, and I appreciated that."

Bryan Herta

Herta was teammates with Wheldon at Andretti Green from 2003-05 and now owns Bryan Herta Autosport, the team Wheldon drove for in winning last year's Indianapolis 500.

"(On first impression) He was a brash, cocky kid. He knew how good he was, but we didn't yet. He was there for one reason: He was there to win races. Dario said it best: He was the little brother none of us wanted. He really was. Yet we had all grown so close. He had matured and changed and evolved so much as a person in so many positive ways. He really became, even though he was still our little brother, somebody that we all looked up to."

"When he agreed to drive for my team it was a great show of faith and confidence because we'd only run one Indy 500 with a rookie driver and frankly we barely qualified for the race. And here's a guy who was a former winner and had finished second three years running who agreed to drive for our team. And he didn't make any specific demands … the only thing he kept asking was, 'We're going to have a fast car, right?' We felt like we owed it to him to give him a fast car because we knew what he would do with it if we did. And luckily our amazing group of guys were able to give him a good car and Dan did what probably only Dan could have done: Go out and win with it."

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this story.

Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

. fast facts

Honda Grand Prix

of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener, plus races in other series, including Indy Lights and Star Mazda

When/where: Friday-Sunday, downtown streets

Defending champion: Dario Franchitti

IndyCar schedule: Friday, practices 11:50 a.m. and 2:50 p.m.; Saturday, practice 9:55 a.m., qualifying 1:55 p.m.; Sunday, race 12:30 p.m.

Tickets: Prices range from $20 for ages 12 and under for Friday and Saturday to $125 for a three-day adult upper-reserved seat. Paddock passes and convenience charges extra. Details or to buy: gpstpete.com; (727) 898-4639, extension 225.

Memories of Dan Wheldon flow as Grand Prix of St. Petersburg nears 03/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 9:43pm]

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