This article originally appeared on INDYCAR Nation on May 10, 2012. To access More Front Wing’s INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, visit indycarnation.indycar.com.
Last May, my co-editor Paul Dalbey and I were extremely fortunate to create More Front Wing’s Centennial Interview Series, a collection of conversations with many of the living winners of the Indianapolis 500.
One of the drivers we spoke to at that time was Dan Wheldon. We explored his passion for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and his mindset surrounding his prospects for a win going into the event as a one-off driver with a small operation.
I decided to revisit this interview for some insight into what was going through Dan’s mind as he prepared for what would turn out to be his final win.
On Dan’s first visit to IMS: “My first actual visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was in 1999. I was teammates with Mark Dismore, Jr., and his father was in the race and the Dismore family invited me to go along. Obviously, I’m from a country where motorsport is very prominent, so I knew of the Indianapolis 500 and had an idea, or what I thought was a good idea, of the size of the event. But having been there in person, it absolutely blew my mind. I was amazed at the facility itself, obviously the race being as competitive as it always is. And the media really hyped it up in England – I was kind of familiar with that standpoint – but the crowd, it really was mind-blowing. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve been blessed to go to some great sporting events, and I’ve been to the British Grand Prix a lot before going to the Indianapolis 500, so I was expecting it to be something similar to that, but it’s just phenomenal. I couldn’t believe that you could get 350-400,000 people all with that same passion and that same drive to watch a fantastic race.”
On his mindset going into the race in 2005: “I knew going into the 2005 race that I had an incredibly strong car in traffic. There were some other quick guys there – my teammates were all incredibly quick, the Penske cars were quick, there’s always tons of people in the Indy 500 that are quick. But I was very, very confident in it through traffic, and that just made me supremely confident from the get-go. It was just about executing, which is very difficult at that race. Once out front, it’s always about just concentrating as much as you can. But I think those last few laps, you know you’ve got the ability and the chance to win the Indy 500, and rather than become kind of relaxed and envisioning that you’re just so focused on not making a mistake because anything can happen around there. That’s really what I had the biggest problem with at that point was making sure the emotion didn’t overcome anything and cause me to do anything silly. But everything seemed to work out for us and by the end we were drinking milk.”
On how it feels to return to IMS as the defending champion: “When you come back, it’s a very, very strange feeling, actually. I’ve always loved the event so much, it’s always been so special to me, that I thought having won it once I would be satisfied. But it’s that kind of event that you win it once and it makes you even more determined to win it again because there’s so many special things that happen as a winner of the Indianapolis 500, from personal satisfaction to all the things that you get to do. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, and to be part of history, that for me was incredibly special. It made me even more hungry to come back and win it, and every year it gets that fire going in you because you just want to do it.”
On when he realized his true passion for Indianapolis: “I remember [in 2006], I think it was with maybe 12 laps to go, I was just coming up to lap Sam Hornish, who eventually won the race. But shortly after, I picked up a flat tire and that put me at the back of the pack. I lost some time, and I was able to come back through to fourth. But that was, I think, the race where I really realized how much I love the Indianapolis 500 because I was just devastated. After leaving that much and having by far the most superior car out there, I was just devastated not to win it. That was certainly a bitter pill to swallow for me.”
On the secret to his success at IMS: “I certainly am very disciplined, and I think this comes from Michael [Andretti, Wheldon’s one-time team owner] a lot, making sure that you have a good race car. It’s all very well being in the headlines setting fast laps and stuff like this leading into the race, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have a good race car that gives you no satisfaction. The only thing that really matters is the result of the race. I work stringently on being disciplined and not letting anything take focus away from that. I believe I’m a realist and have a good understanding of what the car’s capable of for qualifying and therefore won’t go throwing away tires to try and improve my starting position when there really isn’t the necessity to do that. And plus, I enjoy it. I love that track. It’s obviously incredibly intense, but it’s very rewarding. It means a lot, I think, when there’s so much meaning to a race. You’re able to raise your game. Plus, I’ve always had Honda power.”
On going into the 2011 race as a part-time driver: “I don’t think it’s changed my approach, but in terms of mentality I’m very, very hungry. It’s great to be able to spend more time with your family, but [being part-time has] also made me realize how much I love driving a race car. The #98 car is going to have a very driven driver in it, there’s no doubt about that. Certainly, there will be a little bit of a disadvantage having not been part of the first four races in terms of being a little bit race rusty to start with, but hopefully with the time that you get in the race car prior to the race, that should clean up pretty quickly.”
What being a winner of the Indianapolis 500 meant to Dan: “It’s a phenomenal feeling to have the Baby Borg here in my house. The last couple of years have been tough, but it’s nice sometimes to get home and look at that. It certainly brings back many fond memories. But I think it certainly defines you. It’s phenomenal to be part of that history. When you look, there’s a great list of winners of the Indianapolis 500, but there’s also a great list of great drivers that haven’t won the event, which just goes to show you how difficult it is.
“But it’s everything. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction from winning the event. My family put an awful lot of time into me to get me where I am today, and to be able to give them that victory, it’s as much theirs as it is mine. And getting the first win for Michael and all the people at Andretti Green Racing, they certainly deserved it, they worked very hard for it, so it’s so rewarding. And for me, the fans are phenomenal. They never forget what goes on at the Speedway on any given year. They have great memories, and I think it’s because of the passion that they follow the race with. I love the event, it’s very defining to me, and I think that definition has really made me even more hungry to win it again.
“I’m not going to stop until I’ve won it again because I know I’m capable of it, and it’s about just making sure you do everything in your power to put yourself in the right position to do it. And if you do that, there’s a good chance you’re going to win.”