Byline: Dave Hannigan in America
Last month, Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500, America's most famous race. So how come he's barely known back home?
The scene was the victory circle moments after the finish of last month's Indianapolis 500. As handlers raced to place different sponsors' hats on Dan Wheldon's head for each photograph, they turned him this way and that for the cameras. Off to the side, he spotted his parents, Clive and Sue, standing there, absorbing the moment. There were 300,000 other people shoehorned into The Brickyard but as Wheldon looked at his mother and father, he glimpsed his childhood in the Buckinghamshire village of Emberton, and the start of the journey that had brought them here.
"We had this routine," Wheldon explains. "Obviously Dad had to work so my job once I got back from school every day was this: I'd make sure that the camper van was clean and buffed up and stocked up -I'm a neat freak by the way. And then he'd come home and work on the kart in the garage. My dad had raced karts himself, my mum had been in timing and lap-scoring, and I started karting at four.
"They took me everywhere in that camper van. I have such nice memories of stopping at Little Chefs for breakfast or my dad cooking me breakfast in a car park on the motorway somewhere. It was so nice to pay them back with something."
Having watched their 26-year-old son become the first Englishman since Graham Hill to win America's most famous race, the Wheldons didn't see him again for 10 days.
He was whisked away on a whirlwind media tour designed to transform a respected if little-known IndyCar driver into a staple of the television chat shows.
He sat on David Letterman's couch, held forth about his shoe collection on Regis and Kelly (the most-watched morning programme), and threw out the first pitch at a baseball game between the New York Mets and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Four decades after the Beatles' landmark concert, a handsome pin-up from England again took centre-stage at Shea stadium.
"It's cool to do that, to throw to Mike Piazza (the Mets' catcher) and then for him to think I threw pretty hard for some bloke who has just won the Indy 500. He said to me afterwards, 'You made my glove pop, what are you, a cricketer?'," says Wheldon.
"I also got to hang out with the New York Yankees and when you see guys like Derek Jeter (the Yankees legendary shortstop) up close, man those guys are ripped. I met the Yankees coach Joe Torre. Now there is a guy with an aura. He has a presence that immediately commands respect."
That people in Britain know little of Piazza (a baseball All-Star) and care less about Torre (who has managed the Yankees to four World Series victories) sums up the curious stage Wheldon's career has reached. Following Indianapolis, where his winning purse was more than $1.5m, his fame in America has been elevated to that of a bold face name gossip columns have erroneously linked with the actress Tara Reid.
Yet, beyond the motor racing aficionados, nobody back home is too aware of his achievements.
Does that bother him?
"Not really, they'll get their chance."
He is as confident as you would expect somebody who makes a living hurtling around oval tracks at speeds of 235mph to be. He has a line in patter that goes down well with the American media, and most importantly, possesses the talent to back it all up. As his contract with Andretti-Green Racing expires at the end of this season, there is much paper talk about a potential move to Formula One.
"As far as F1 goes, if the opportunity arose and it was going to be an opportunity that was ideal, I'd consider it," he says.
"But I'm not just going to go there for the sake of it. If they want somebody to go there just to be there, they've got the wrong guy. I would like to go there and be there and compete for points. I know it's not always easy to compete for wins in F1, that's not the way it works.
"But I'd want to get a ton of testing before I started, I'd want to go to every single track. I'd want to do it right. I don't want to be one of those guys who goes there and then comes back. If I thought there was the remotest chance of that, I ain't gonna go."
Six years across the Atlantic in America haven't altered an accent that is still more Milton Keynes than mid-west, but his vocabulary is peppered with colloquialisms. Darn. Ain't. Kick-ass. Wheldon owns homes in Miami, St Petersburg, also in Florida and Indianapolis, and his assertion that F1 would only interest him in ideal circumstances should be taken at face value.
After all, America has certainly treated him a great deal better as a professional than Britain ever did. Once he graduated from karts, where he jousted with Jensen Button and Anthony Davidson pretty much all the way up, to cars, he was unable to make the jump to Formula Three due to a lack of funding.
With his family serving as both his management team and chief financial backers, he was running out of options when Ralph Firman, for whom he'd driven in Formula Ford, suggested he go to America to try out in a USF 2000 car.
Within 12 months of taking his first test run in Florida, he'd won the USF 2000 championship and started progressing through the ranks of American racing. At every subsequent level, he won Rookie of the Year honours, and just three years after leaving England, he made his debut in an IndyCar event and finished a credible 10th. The summit was within sight.
"When I came over here, the first three months were difficult. I went home at the end of every month and every time I went home I just ended up missing England more," says Wheldon.
"The moment I'd start to settle, I'd go home, I'd go and see everybody in F3 and I'd hate it. It got to the point where I decided that I'm gonna stay here until I darn well make it. I just had to be competitive here, otherwise I was going to run into the same problems I had back in England where if I was going to do a second year in a formula, I wouldn't be able to do it unless the team was going to pay for it.
"It wasn't a case of feeling your way in, I had to make sure I moved on every year, otherwise I might have been screwed. Otherwise I'd have ended up being a plumber with my dad. Not that there's anything wrong with that, my dad runs a successful comp-any, I just wanted to be a race car driver."
There is no bitterness about being forced to emigrate in search of opportunity, just an obvious tone of determination that has led him here this Wednesday afternoon to The Great American Speedway, 30 miles north of Dallas. As the grandiloquent name suggests, it is a 200,000-seater monument to a country's motor racing heritage and traditions. With names like Earnhardt Way and Andretti Avenue, the approach roads to the 1A-mile oval track pay homage to the country's most illustrious driving dynasties.
Following four wins in the first six IndyCar races this season, Wheldon has begun carving a reputation of his own and he sits atop the IndyCar driving championship with an 83-point lead. Scarcely a piece in any American paper goes by without comparing him to Nigel Mansell.
"This is a very different country and to be truthful, it's much easier for somebody coming from England to succeed over here than an American going over to England," Wheldon says.
"The motor sport is very different over here. The F1 thing is very political. The politics here are all on the surface so you can steer clear of them or work around them, avoid them if you want to. In F1, the politics is down below so there's a lot of back-stabbing that is much harder to avoid.
"I don't think you necessarily need financial backing to break into F1. You just need the right people behind you to orchestrate the deal, to put the deal in place and make sure that everything is going to happen the way it needs to happen in order for you to be competitive.
"Look at Michael (Andretti, co-owner of Wheldon's team) here. He was a hugely talented guy, went to McLaren, one of the best F1 teams at the time, and it just didn't work for him because he didn't get the test mileage. He probably did two or three days before the race. If you compare that to when Jacques Villeneuve went into F1, he went into the best team, tested like crazy and happened to do very well."
When the subject of F1 crops up, Wheldon's answers are considered enough to suggest he has mulled over the topic often.
He still watches the races on television but claims to have felt no envy when he saw his former rival Button breaking through while he was driving so far off-Broadway in another country. The sight of somebody he regards as an equal making it at that level simply reinforced his strong belief in his own talent.
There is also a sense he's been afforded an education that will stand him in good stead down the line.
"When I first came to IndyCars there were so many good guys, and I happen to be on a team with three of the best in the world -Tony Kanaan (the defending IndyCar series champion), Dario Franchitti (from Scotland) and Bryan Herta. They were so good at letting me learn from them. And I have. I wouldn't have won the Indianapolis 500 at this stage of my career if it wasn't for them.
"Could you imagine having three teammates in F1 that would help you the way they have helped me? There's no way in the world they'd let a young kid come in and learn from them in F1. There's examples of each one of those guys sitting with me for an hour or an hour and a half, helping this young punk from England become quicker. That would not happen anywhere else."
Kanaan, Franchitti and Herta have exacted quite a price for their assistance, gaining a reputation around the circuit for constantly pulling pranks on the young buck.
At a race in Japan last year, Wheldon's teammates took one of each pair of his shoes and express-shipped them back to Indianapolis. On another occasion, he returned to his hotel room to discover his television had been stolen by his colleagues.
That his sense of humour has remained intact was evidenced by the T-shirt he wore before the Dallas race. It bore the legend "Actually won the Indy 500", a reference to the fact Danica Patrick, the woman who finished fourth behind him that day, had received an inordinate amount of attention for that feat, including the coveted cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
"Who cares about Danica?" he says. "I've just won the biggest race in the world and I understand what's happened. Let's just say you're a businessman and you own Sports Illustrated. So you've got 33 IndyCar drivers and one of them happens to be a smoking hot woman. I know who I'd put on the cover if I was that businessman.
The smoking hot woman every time."
A couple of hours after the interview, the IndyCar community is gathered at the AMF Fun Fest Bowling Lanes in Arlington, Texas for a meet-the-fans autograph session. Despite professing himself to be "knackered", Wheldon arrives to do his bit for a sport that is second behind Nascar in the national consciousness.
Upon entering the room, he immediately spots Kanaan and Franchitti playing pool over in the corner and before they can move to protect themselves, he is upon them, launching himself across the table, splattering balls all over the baize.
They are amused and there is an impish grin on his face as he just lies there. The impression is obvious. Man at work. Boy at play.
oIndyCar, today, Sky Sports Xtra, 6pm
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 2005
Flying the flag: Dan Wheldon is having a ball in America and is in no hurry to move to Formula One. 'I'd consider it, but I'm not just going to go there for the sake of it,' he says. Photograph by John Gress