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Party time in St. Petersburg for Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon

ST. PETERSBURG — The finish line is in sight, and the world famous IndyCar driver is refusing to budge. Not when there is another poster to sign. Another photo to take. Another fan dying to say they shook the hand of the man.

This was Dan Wheldon's day, and that's not a figure of speech. The city of St. Petersburg hosted a celebration late Tuesday afternoon and issued a proclamation naming the day in honor of last week's Indianapolis 500 winner.

So, long after the politicians have left and the beer vendors at Jannus Live have shut down, Wheldon sticks around. His handlers forever seem ready to whisk him away, but he continues smiling, talking, signing, hugging and charming a crowd.

There is something ludicrous, and yet completely natural about the scene. In an era when millionaire athletes hide behind tinted windows and entourages, Wheldon is a throwback to forgotten days. To a time when wide receivers and third basemen were also neighbors.

And, since 2005, St. Petersburg has been Wheldon's chosen neighborhood. Specifically overlooking Coffee Pot Bayou in Snell Isle. This is where he and his wife, Susie, take their two boys for walks in strollers. Where he hits up Einstein Bros. Bagels and Starbucks.

This is where a 32-year-old — technically unemployed — driver from England became a favorite son in a city that few other athletes seem eager to embrace.

"I almost feel like I have, other than my family in England, more ties to St. Pete than anywhere else," Wheldon said Tuesday evening after finally sitting down in a suite above Jannus Live. "This is where my American career kick-started. It was the first place I sort of fell in love with. It's where my family started.

"The people here, whether it be friends in the street or restaurants or bagel places or coffee shops, they're just very friendly. And if they want to introduce themselves and say hello, I'm absolutely okay with that."

Wheldon is getting a lot more of that these days after getting the checkered flag on the grandest stage in racing for the second time in his career.

The victory may well have been the most improbable in the 100-year history of the Indianapolis 500. It's not just that race leader J.R. Hildebrand crashed on the final turn, or that Wheldon was the first driver to win the race while leading only a single lap.

It was that it was Wheldon's first — and potentially final — race of the season after refusing to sign contracts with teams he felt were not competitive enough.

This was a one-shot deal with former teammate Bryan Herta's fledging team, and so the Indianapolis 500 winner will be holding a TV microphone instead of a steering wheel when the series resumes this weekend in Texas.

Wheldon said he had two offers for cars for Saturday's race in Fort Worth, but declined because he didn't think he would have a chance to win.

After winning the series championship in 2005, and finishing in the top four in points for five consecutive seasons, Wheldon's stock slipped when he jumped to a new race team in 2009. He was hoping to get a ride with one of the three major teams in 2011, but decided to remain on the sidelines when that opportunity did not come along.

"I've been at peace with the situation because I'm the one who declined certain situations. It's my fault that I'm not in a car," Wheldon said. "I had a tough couple of years, and I've been part of two of the three big teams before, and I wanted to get myself back in one of those seats. That didn't seem to be the case.

"I'm lucky because my management has done a very good job putting me in a position where I don't have to drive for money. It's about being selective. So if I feel I can be competitive, then I'll do it. If not, I won't."

Instead, Wheldon is back to being the world's busiest unemployed driver.

Since his victory, he has gone to New York twice, including an appearance with David Letterman, and he flew to Texas to promote Saturday's race.

He returned home Tuesday and spent time catching up with Grand Prix of St. Petersburg general manager Tim Ramsberger before the city celebration, but leaves for Nashville today, where he will be a presenter at the CMT Music Awards.

After that, it's back to Texas where he will work the broadcast booth for Versus, and then he's off to England early next week for a business trip.

The line at Starbucks might be a little shorter next week, but you can always count on Wheldon to come back for more.

"I have this conversation with people all the time," said St. Petersburg council member Bill Dudley, who lives nearby. "I say, 'You know we have an Indy 500 winner here.' And they say, 'Really, here in St. Pete?' I say, 'No, right here in our neighborhood. You see the house over there? The guy always walking the baby in the stroller? That's him.'

"But he's such a regular guy, you wouldn't know it. He's so down to earth. Really, he couldn't be any nicer any time you run into him."

After all, this is his home.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Party time in St. Petersburg for Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon 06/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 12:19am]
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