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Wheldon's life speeds into place

Good thing Dan Wheldon is used to the fast lane. Otherwise, he would never be able to keep up.

For the Fastest Man in St. Petersburg, life has turned into a race, complete with breakneck speeds and hairpin turns and unforeseen obstacles. There are races to win and wedding details to complete and a season to forget and a bachelors' party to remember and interviews to do and a car to fine-tune and a merger to define and a future to ponder and new teeth to flash and old shoes to explain.

In other words, you might suggest that the days have turned into an unbridled rush, but before the craziest month of his life is complete, Wheldon will take care of the bride part, too.

If you can, try to keep up with him.

At the moment, Wheldon is sitting at a Starbucks in downtown St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown, answering serious questions and silly ones, trying to drum up a little more interest in the upcoming season of IRL racing, especially the April 4-6 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Who knows? Once the racing begins, perhaps Wheldon will be able to slow down a little.

Lately, there are skid marks on his day planner. He was in Homestead in late February for testing, and then he went to Las Vegas for a four-day bachelors party, and then he returned to St. Petersburg for one of those 12-interview, grip-and-grin days on Tuesday. He left Wednesday for more testing at Sebring. The families of Wheldon and his fiancee, Susie Behm, begin to arrive Saturday, with his wedding a week later. Three days after returning from his honeymoon, he travels to Homestead for the beginning of the IRL season.

At this point, perhaps you wish to exhale loudly. Perhaps Wheldon does, too.

The thing is, as he sits at a small table, Wheldon seems particularly unhurried by a life that is precisely where he wants it to be. He is, you might say, unjittered.

"From a personal standpoint, I haven't had a lot of stability in my life,'' Wheldon said. "It's like I was always bouncing from one place to the other, following the action. Now I have that (stability), and it's helped me as far as fitness, as far as diet, as far as & maturity level.''

Wheldon is almost 30 now, and yes, he enjoyed his 20s as much as any single athlete ever has. After a while, however, a guy grows up.

Take the 2007 season. Despite a good beginning, Wheldon fell to fourth in the IRL standings. After finishing first in 2005 and second in 2006, it wasn't his idea of a good time.

"It was a little difficult to swallow,'' said Wheldon. "The thing about Indy cars is that the off-season is so long that, at times, you're miserable. You want things to start again so you can forget about it. You go through, and you try to figure out what went wrong and why.''

To put it in layman's terms, think of 2005 as winning the Super Bowl and 2006 as reaching the conference championship. So what does that make 2007?

Wheldon thinks for a moment. "Maybe making the playoffs, but not doing very well in them.''

Oh. So in 2007, you were the Bucs?

Wheldon makes a face. "Hopefully, it was a little better than that.''

Go on, laugh. He grew up in Emberton, England, but Wheldon has lived here since 2005, and by now, he is a familiar face in Tampa Bay sports. Ask him whom the Bucs need to acquire to play wide receiver, and after he figures out what position you're talking about, he says "Marvin Harrison.''

He says Winky Wright would beat Antonio Tarver in a fight. He wants to get into the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he has no idea who Oren Koules is (and, really, does anyone?). He will probably vote against a new stadium for the Rays "because it would mess with our race & and really, they have to win a few more games before they get a new stadium.''

For Wheldon, last year was frustrating enough that it left him with unfinished business. Oh, there is the constant talk about NASCAR, of course. As of Wednesday, if you Googled "Dan Wheldon'' and "NASCAR,'' there were 69,500 hits.

Wheldon says he doesn't want the distraction that talking about it, or that thinking about it, might cause. But, yeah, he watched Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish at Daytona. Yeah, he admits, he is intrigued.

And honestly, who isn't? Can't you imagine Wheldon's car? He could put the Union Jack on his hood and the Tower Bridge on his trunk. He could have a Beatle over each wheel. Maybe Cadbury's could be his sponsor.

"What I want is to have a good enough season so that if I'm pulled in different directions, it's my choice,'' Wheldon said.

If that happens, one can only imagine the Internet buzz. As it is, there seems to be an audience that quite enjoys Wheldon's little quirks.

At the Wheldon house, for instance, 300 is not a movie about Spartans. It's the number of shoes Wheldon owns, and there are some who cannot stop obsessing about Wheldon's obsession. It's as if Imelda Marcos were racing on the open-wheel circuit.

Then there is Wheldon's new smile, a blinding, Mentos commercial collection of new teeth. That happened this offseason, too. Susie was going to the dentist, and she dragged Wheldon along for a cleaning. When he was in the chair, he was asked how long it had been since he had been to the dentist. Since the '90s, Wheldon said.

Several sessions, and more than 30 hours of work later, there is a new gleam to his grin.

With any luck, Indy car fans will see a lot of it in the upcoming season.


Grand Prix of
St. Petersburg

When: April 6, 2:45 p.m.

Tickets: (727) 898-4639

Wheldon's life speeds into place 03/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 1:54pm]
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