At the edge of the racetrack, on a wide pad of asphalt, Susie Wheldon stooped to help her small son.
Sebastian, 7, already had wriggled into his Puma fire suit. Susie slid the chest protector over his head, to keep his lungs from being crushed. She strapped on the neck brace, to protect his spine. She tied his tiny racing shoes.
"Ready to go?" asked his coach.
The boy nodded, and climbed into his new Kid Kart. As soon as he pulled the helmet over his spiky blonde hair, his usual grin melted. He scrunched his freckled nose and set his jaw. "Getting his game face on," Susie called it.
He lowered the visor. She bent and kissed the spot in front of his mouth. Just like she had done before every race with his dad, her Dan.
Her husband was 33, a two-time Indy 500 champion, when he died in a crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Five years later, Susie, 38, has built a new home, started a new business and struggled to be a single mom to two boisterous boys. Letting her son race, she said, is the hardest thing she has had to do.
On a dreary winter Sunday at the Ocala Gran Prix, she watched her first-grader plant his feet on both sides of a gas tank. Between his knees sloshed a gallon of fuel. The go-cart doesn't have a seat belt; if it flips going 60 mph, the coach said, it's better for the driver to be ejected than to roll with the wreckage.
"Good luck!" Susie said, trying to smile. She waited until her son revved the engine, then stepped aside.
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When Susie met Dan, they were 23. She had just graduated from a small Christian college and taken a job at an advertising agency. He had just signed with Michael Andretti's team and was named the IndyCar Series' Rookie of the Year.
They were introduced at a photo shoot for Jim Beam whiskey.
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"Cocky. Self-confident. Outgoing, but not really arrogant," she called the toothy young driver. "He was wearing this long black peacoat and had this mussed blonde hair and great English accent. I noticed he was handsome. But I was so busy trying to fake that I knew what I was doing, I never saw him as my future husband."
Dan Wheldon had grown up in a small town north of London. His dad, a plumber, raced go-carts and put Dan in the driver's seat when he was 4. By 10, Dan was British Junior Kart champion. After high school, he moved to America to drive Indy cars.
He and Susie worked together for two years. She set up photo shoots, staging him with the Jim Beam logo, traveling to races. She was cheering at the finish line when he won his first race in Japan, screaming beside the track in 2005, when he won St. Petersburg's first grand prix.
Later that year, after winning the Indianapolis 500, she said, "That was the first time I really felt him hug me." The celebration was epic. Susie had to stay sober, to make sure Dan got to his 6 a.m. interview with "Good Morning America." At 5:30 a.m., she pulled him out of the still raging party, propped him in a chair, put a microphone in his hand — and woke him when he fell asleep during commercials.
When Dan decided to move to St. Petersburg a few months later, he asked Susie to come work for him as his personal assistant. So she followed him to Florida, helped him build a house on Snell Isle and manage his new-found stardom.
Sometimes, she made reservations for his dinner dates and bought gifts for other women. She swore she wasn't jealous. "I loved my job," she said. "I didn't want to do anything to screw that up."
There wasn't one single moment when everything shifted, Susie said. "I just felt it happening. He started being much more tender toward me."
Just before Christmas in 2007, Dan called Susie out to the dock behind his home. "Something's wrong with the jet ski," he said. He held out a ring and dropped to one knee.
They married three months later; a year after that, baby Sebastian was born.
"Dan fell in love with fatherhood," Susie said. "He changed diapers, took his boy everywhere."
Sebastian was 18 months old, barely toddling, when Dan first sat him in his lap in a go-cart and sped around a track. "He would have had him driving at 2," Susie said, "if his feet could've reached the pedals."
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Susie never felt frightened, she said. In almost a decade of watching Dan drive around a 2.5-mile track, topping speeds of 200 mph, she never thought about her husband being in danger.
"But Dan did," she said. "He'd bring it up when we were dating. 'You might find you don't want to be with a race car driver,' he'd say. 'This life can be scary.' "
Everyone in the racing community knew someone who had been killed on a track. One of their friends, who had young kids, had been paralyzed. Susie just didn't dwell on those possibilities.
Dan was so experienced. He had flipped cars, been crushed in pileups.
But he always came out smiling that over-sized grin.
• • •
No one thought Dan had a chance to win the Indy 500 again in the summer of 2011. "He hadn't raced for a while," Susie said.
She took Sebastian to the track, along with a new addition to their family, 3-month-old Oliver.
She watched from the pit stall, where she could hear her husband on his headset, through the radio.
After four hours of driving, with two laps to go, Dan was still behind. Then, in the last turn, someone crashed. And Dan pulled ahead. Susie held her breath. "I thought he would run out of fuel."
When Dan won, he wept. He was the first driver ever to win the Indy 500 while only leading the last lap. Susie brought the boys to Victory Lane where Dan scooped up Sebastian and carried him to the finish line. Together, they knelt and kissed the fabled bricks.
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He left his own party after only an hour that night. "He wanted to have a quiet dinner at the hotel with just us," Susie said. "He was at such a different point in his life."
Marino Franchitti, who raced carts against Dan in England, marveled at the change in his chum. He told racing writer Andy Hallbery, "It was like someone flipped a switch when he found what he was looking for in life with Susie and the boys."
That summer, Mattel issued a Hot Wheels model of Dan's Indy Car. He became the voice of a driver on TV's animated Hotwheels Battleforce 5. And he was able to be home more often, finally relax. He kept a Lamborghini in the garage, but drove his Honda Fit to the gym. He would get groceries with Susie and the boys, go get their hair cut.
"There was just this sense of contentment around us," Susie said. "Everything was so right and happy."
Their next trip was in October, to watch him race in Las Vegas.
She has never spoken about it, until now.
Nick Laham | Getty Images (2011)
Oliver was 7 months old. Susie had never left him. But the night before the race, Dan had to attend a dinner for one of his sponsors. So she left the boys at the hotel with their nanny and for the first time in a year, they had a date.
Afterwards, Dan spotted a tattoo parlor. On a whim, he and Susie had each other's initials inscribed inside their wrists. "Dan had never gotten a tattoo," she said. "I don't know why all of a sudden he wanted to that night, but he was so excited about it, he called his dad to tell him."
They went to bed around 11 p.m., each with a wrist wrapped in gauze.
The next morning, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Susie settled the boys with their nanny in a suite, then went down to the track.
Dan already had wriggled into his fire suit.
Susie walked over to his car and bent to kiss him before he put on his helmet. After he lowered the visor, she kissed the spot in front of his mouth. Just like she had done before every race.
She waited until her husband revved the engine, then stepped aside.
She watched from the pit box, listened on the radio.
Dan started at the back of the pack that day, last of the 34 drivers. After 10 laps, he had climbed 10 spots.
Then a driver in an outside lane tried to cut toward the center. In an instant, cars were flying, rolling, bursting into flames. Dan was driving so fast he would have crossed a football field in less than a second. There was no way to stop, nowhere to steer to avoid smashing into the pileup — 15 cars crumpled in charred wreckage.
On the radio, Susie heard only silence.
• • •
Chaos. Blackness. Confusion.
For months, Susie couldn't get out of bed. While others took her boys to play, she sat alone in that big house Dan had built, surrounded by his trophies, mourning that their children would never know him, except through the stories of others.
Hundreds of fans and drivers wrote letters. They wanted to honor Dan, find ways to keep his name alive. So Susie would drag herself into the shower and steel her way through public appearances.
She took the boys to the next Indianapolis 500, where 300,000 fans donned Dan's signature white sunglasses. She took the boys to a go-cart track in England, where Dan's boyhood buddies told stories of his pranks. She took them to a Top Kart race in Indiana, where a team owner presented Sebastian with his own go-cart. The boy, barely 4, begged his mom to let him "drive like Daddy."
Susie wanted to go to those events, to show her boys how beloved their dad was. "But I felt like I had to share Dan with so many people, I couldn't figure out where I fit in any more," she said. "Every time someone told a story about Dan, it was like ripping off a Band-aid."
That whole first year, she kept thinking Dan was going to come home, just walk through that door and scoop her into his arms. "It wasn't until I had to go to the Social Security office and sign that form that said: Marriage terminated by death. That's what made it real."
Jenn St. Cin, who is Susie's closest friend, tried to help her through the aftermath. "She's been to the darkest place of anyone I've known," said Jenn. "I've never seen the physical pain of grief like that. She couldn't breathe. Literally. She would call me five times a day saying, 'I'm not going to make it.' "
After three years, Dan's jeans were still in his closet, his hair gel still on the bathroom sink.
Finally, Jenn convinced Susie to get help. "She needed some therapy," Jenn said.
Susie knew she needed to start healing, so she could be there for her boys. She had to figure out who she was without Dan.
• • •
To move on, Susie decided, she had to move. There was too much of him in that house. The Realtor convinced her to pack Dan's trophies. Jenn helped her sort through his closet.
Susie rented a house in the Old Northeast and put the two cars he had won at the Indy 500s into storage. When her boys are old enough, Sebastian will get the 2005 convertible Corvette, which was the car that set the pace and positioned racers for the first race; Oliver will inherit the 2011 Camaro.
Once she had resettled, Susie set about designing her dream house. Dan had left her a comfortable inheritance, and she wanted plenty of room for her boys to play. Working with an architect, she created a modern two-story surrounding an in-ground pool, with a walk-in closet that would have made Dan proud.
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They moved in October 2015. A brick from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is imbedded into the front steps. Trophies from Dan's Indy 500 wins watch over the boys' desks. His handsome face grins in every room. But this house is hers.
For a while, Susie drove to Calvary Catholic cemetery to talk to him. But she never really felt him there. When she needs to be close now, she rises before dawn, careful not to wake her boys, and tells the nanny she'll be back.
She runs down the waterfront, past the Vinoy where she and Dan were married, past the sailboats, piers and parks, about 2.5 miles — all the way to a monument dedicated to him on Turn 10, "Dan Wheldon Way." She presses her forehead against the cool stone and watches the sun rise above Tampa Bay.
Susie tries not to dwell on questions of what if or why. "There would never be a good enough reason," she said. "I don't really have a clear answer to tell my kids when they ask, 'What happens after you die?'"
In the fall, Oliver started kindergarten. And Susie decided she needed her boys to see her working. Her life is finally starting to feel stable now. A new normal.
She opened a boutique on Central Avenue, near M.L. King Jr. Street, with double doors and wide windows. Inside, trendy jeans and T-shirts hang on long racks. The back wall is covered with a mural of a giant lion sporting a heart-shaped pendant with the initials DW— Dan Wheldon, the Lionheart.
Susie rented the space last fall. She called a friend whose clothing company had sponsored Dan, called another who worked at Nordstrom. She painted baseboards, set up dressing rooms, ordered high-end streetwear for men and women. She named the shop after Dan's favorite band, Verve.
She scheduled the grand opening for March 9, the first day of St. Petersburg's Grand Prix, so that her friends in the racing community could share in her next chapter.
She has taken off her wedding ring, but still wears Dan's silver cross. She hasn't dated. She still cries, sometimes at the strangest times. Like Sebastian's first school conference. Oliver's soccer game.
The hole, she said, hurts most at the track. Dan should be there, watching his son race. He would tell Susie not to worry. Everything was going to be all right.
How can she ever believe that again?
JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times
At the edge of the racetrack, on the wide pad of asphalt, Susie Wheldon shielded her eyes to see her small son. She was the only mom at the track; the other boys were with their dads.
JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times
That gray winter Sunday, Sebastian was practicing with his team for an upcoming race. His coach was trying to teach him to brake into turns, but the boy wanted to go as fast as he could.
He had taken nine laps. He wore No. 98, the number his dad wore when he won his second Indy 500.
Susie watched him slide in a slick switchback, then pull out and rev on. "He turned too early," his coach said. "And he's still so light in that bigger car."
Sebastian started racing at 4, like his dad. In August, he won the speedway's Kid Kart championship — and a trophy taller than he is. His coach promoted him to the next level of racing, bigger engines, speeds twice as fast. Sebastian is small for his age, still has all his baby teeth. He races against 15-year-olds who are starting to grow beards.
The fear Susie never felt for Dan is sometimes crushing now, as a mother. Both of her boys look just like him and are such daredevils, like their dad.
"I worry, all the time, is it wrong for me to let them race?" she said. Oliver has been asking, too. "I want them to be able to decide for themselves what they want to do. And if racing is their thing, I have to support that."
If their father had died fighting fires or playing football, few would question letting his sons continue that legacy. She can't cut them off from what might be their destiny. Or deny them the chance to try to get closer to the dad they never knew. "I couldn't do that to Dan," Susie said. "I can't put my fears on them."
The sun was starting to slip behind the live oaks as Sebastian eased onto the asphalt beside his mom. "That was so fun going so fast!" he shouted as soon as Susie pulled off his helmet. "I'm hungry!"
On the way out, through the go-cart shop, Sebastian spotted a new poster by the door. "Heeey!" he shouted. "There's Daddy!"
There Dan was, holding Sebastian as a toddler. Dan Wheldon, Florida Winter Tour Karting Ambassador Award. Thick type below listed dates: 1978-2011.
"Come on, let's go," Susie said, trying to herd the boys out the door. "We've still got dinner, homework and bed."
They lingered a while, looking at the photo, then followed her to the parking lot and climbed into the backseat of her minivan.
She buckled them in, to keep them safe.
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected]
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