Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 4/22/12

JOLIET, IL - AUGUST 28: Dan Wheldon climbs aboard the #4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara Honda during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 on August 28, 2009 at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Dan Wheldon, who suffered fatal injuries in a 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, twice won the Indianapolis 500. But neither time was his victory the story of the race.

Wheldon had a sense of humor about the media coverage of the 2005 Indy 500.

Wheldon’s first victory at the Brickyard came in 2005, when he was 26 and beginning his third season as a full-time driver on the IRL IndyCar Series. That race made a star of one IndyCar racer, but it wasn’t Wheldon. Danica Patrick led 19 laps, becoming the first woman to lead at Indianapolis. Patrick was leading at lap 193 and finished fourth. Her performance was noteworthy not only because she was a woman but also because she was a 23-year-old rookie. Much of the attention the media gave Patrick was well deserved, but “Danica Mania” (which was an actual thing) kept Wheldon from getting the recognition that should have come to him.

Wheldon won his second Indy 500 this year, capitalizing on the misfortune of rookie J.R. Hildebrand, who slid into the retaining wall on the fourth turn of the final lap. Hildebrand, who could have cruised uncontested to the finish line, became the story of the 2011 race.

Hildebrand, who coasted (literally) to a second-place finish and claimed rookie-of-the-year honors, drove for Panther Racing, Wheldon’s former team. Wheldon drove for Panther in 2009 and 2010. Though he turned in two second-place finishes at the Indy 500, he failed to win a race in his two years with Panther, and the team decided to release him and replace him with the younger Hildebrand. Wheldon entered this season without a team, but found a ride for Indy. And he won, edging out the driver who had taken his job.

It was an incredible story, but it didn’t translate to Twitter and YouTube. To the average sports fan, the story of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 was reduced to “This Hildebrand kid had the race wrapped up and blew it.”


Once upon a time, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner would have been a household name, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his victories. But Indy racing doesn’t command the attention it once did. IndyCar’s woes go back to 1996 when the Indy Racing League (IRL) broke away from CART, separating many of the sport’s best-known drivers from the sport’s premier race. The IRL merged with Champ Car (formerly CART) in 2008, but not before the split had done considerable damage to the sport’s popularity and ability to attract sponsors.

While ABC continues to air the Indianapolis 500, the rest of the IndyCar Series races are consigned to Versus. IndyCar ratings are consistently lower than those for NASCAR Nationwide races on ESPN2 and NASCAR truck series races on Speed. Indy’s ratings are even poor when compared to other niche sports on Versus.

But that happens. Sports go in and out of fashion. What doesn’t change is the devotion of the athletes. Regardless of a sport’s popularity, there will be athletes who are so dedicated to their craft that they are willing to risk their bodies and even their lives. While sports in general and auto races in particular are safer than they have ever been, there remain those rare occasions when a sport claims the life of one of its most devoted competitors.


Dan Wheldon won 16 IRL/IndyCar Series races in his short career, including his two wins at Indianapolis. He won the series championship in 2005 and finished in the top 5 for 5 consecutive seasons, from 2004 to 2008. By any standard he was a great driver, even if the series he raced in struggled to attract viewers and sponsors. Unlike some of his peers, Wheldon didn’t reach a wider audience by winning Dancing With the Stars or marrying an A-list actress or starring in a Super Bowl commercial. Many American sports fans didn’t know the name “Dan Wheldon” until news of his death broke on Sunday afternoon. And that’s too bad.

Wheldon at the National Guard Youth Foundation 2010 ChalleNGe Champions Gala (Wikipedia)

Wheldon leaves behind his wife, Susie, and two young sons. And that sucks.


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