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St. Petersburg pays tribute to Dan Wheldon by renaming street after him

ST. PETERSBURG — The spot where Dan Wheldon made the crucial pass to win IndyCar's inaugural Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is now named for the city's adopted son.

The city paid tribute to the late two-time Indianapolis 500 champion on Wednesday, renaming a stretch "Dan Wheldon Way" on part of the circuit used for the downtown street race.

Wheldon's widow, Susie, spoke at a brief public dedication ceremony, which included Mayor Bill Foster and several City Council members as well as series CEO Randy Bernard and most of the drivers.

"I am so proud and blessed to be part of this community and to be able to call St. Petersburg home," Susie Wheldon said. "(Sons) Sebastian and Oliver will be so proud to know the impact that their father had on this community and on the world of motorsports."

Wheldon, 33, was killed in October in an IndyCar crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His car took off after touching the rear wheel of another car, went into the catch fence and struck a pole. The race was not completed.

"We ended (last season) unfortunately with Dan's tragedy," driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "I think everybody is still wearing that scar a little bit. We're opening up in his hometown. No better way to celebrate it than going out and having a great event, a huge event, a competitive one."

Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 last year, driving for Bryan Herta Motorsports. That Indy deal was announced last year at the Mahaffey Theater, just a few hundred yards from where Wednesday's ceremony occurred.

The portion of the race course named Dan Wheldon Way is near the Dali Museum where Bay Shore Drive connects along the waterfront to the runway at Albert Whitted Airport. It begins in Turn 10 where Wheldon passed Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan for good in his 2005 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg victory.

"It's so fitting this corner down here now being named after Dan," Briscoe said. "He won the race. It was after a midrace collision between myself and Kanaan down in this corner. This corner named after Dan … is perfect."

The series will run its first race since Las Vegas on March 25 in St. Petersburg to open its 2012 season. Many drivers had Wheldon in mind Wednesday as they spoke at media day.

"I think it will be emotional, maybe for some more than others," Scott Dixon said. "It's going to be tough, but I think it's also a nice way to start the season, almost like it was written."

Race vice president and general manager Tim Ramsberger said that, in addition to the street name, there would also be two plaques erected later this year in the area of Turn 10. One will be dedicated to Wheldon, and the other will include the race logo and names of the previous race winners in St. Petersburg.

"The number of ideas and suggestions that have come to us on ways to pay tribute to Dan has just been overwhelming," Ramsberger said.

With the memorial site dedicated, the series and the city will try to start moving on from the tragedy when the drivers return to race again.

"It's been the longest offseason of my life," said Marco Andretti, Wheldon's teammate at Andretti Green in 2006. "We're all going to be driving St. Pete with heavy hearts. The way I persevere and keep going is I look at Dan as a competitor. So we're going to show up and compete.

"Just coming here, every time I come here I think of Dan. I know he was very proud of this city and this race."

Susie Wheldon, wife of late IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, holds son Sebastian as driver Ryan Hunter-Reay greets her.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Susie Wheldon, wife of late IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, holds son Sebastian as driver Ryan Hunter-Reay greets her.

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

When/where: March 25; downtown. Six racing series take part in the March 23-25 weekend, headlined by IndyCar race March 25.

Tickets: gpstpete.com or call toll-free 1-877-283-5385

St. Petersburg pays tribute to Dan Wheldon by renaming street after him 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 11:57pm]
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