DAN WHELDON was one of the country’s most successful sporting exports.
He was a born champion, a two-time winner of the world famous Indianapolis 500, and was widely accepted as being one of the biggest sporting stars in America.
But all that came to an end on Sunday when he was part of a 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Indy 300 and died as a result of his injuries at the age of 33.
There have been outpourings of grief all over the world for Wheldon, none more so than outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he won his last race in May. Fans gathered and left tributes at the circuit gates.
Wheldon’s racing career took off in 1988 when he took the British Championship Cadet title as a 10-year-old boy at the first time of asking – a title he retained for another two years before making the step up.
His first experience of single seater racing came in 1996 as he competed in the Formula Vauxhall championship, taking three race victories and seven podium finishes on his way to second place.
And still living at his family home in Emberton, Wheldon continued to climb the racing ladder, eventually taking part in Formula Ford and forming a racing rivalry with now F1 star Jenson Button in 1998.
With a lack of funding, his climb up the European ladder ground to a halt, and Wheldon switched his attention to the US, moving there in 1999 and winning the US Formula Ford 2000 title at the first attempt.
He searched in vain for a drive in the CART series, then America’s premier open-wheel series, but with no permanent seat available, he opted to race in the Indycar Series, which featured a heavily oval-based calendar.
As a Brit he was expected to struggle, but Wheldon quickly impressed from the moment he turned a wheel in the series in 2002, before picking up his first race win in 2004.
And he dominated the 2005 season to comfortably win the championship, winning six times including his first Indy 500 glory, instantly listing him among the racing greats.
He narrowly missed out on retaining his title in 2006 as he tied with Sam Hornish Jnr, but lost out on the crown having taken fewer victories.
He slipped out of contention for the title in recent years, and lost his full-time racing seat in 2010 to JR Hildebrand. But ironically it was the same man who crashed out with less than 500 yards remaining at this year’s Indianapolis 500 to gift Wheldon an historic second win, after only competing as a wildcard entry. It also made him the first Englishman to win the famous race twice.
Despite him being without a full-time seat for the 2011 season, Wheldon was still hot property in the sport and still ranked among the top drivers in America.
He was chosen by IndyCar bosses and designers Dallara to help develop the 2012 Indycar chassis, something he took a great deal of pleasure in doing. And as a huge mark of respect, Dallara have confirmed that they are planning to name the 2012 chassis after Wheldon.
That is a fitting tribute to a man whose legacy will live on and whose achievements are unlikely to be matched.