Byline: Kevin Eason
Kevin Eason talks to the driver from Buckinghamshire who has become a famous face in the United States
DAN WHELDON had little time for Christmas festivities. His visit home was curtailed by a demand to appear in front of the cameras for a publicity shoot that will reinforce his image as one of the most famous faces in the United States.
While Wheldon could walk into the paper shop in his home village of Emberton, near Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire without being recognised, he can barely join a supermarket queue in the US without a demand for an autograph.
The new Indy Racing League champion is the fresh face of motor racing in America and will soon appear in adverts on television sports channels as tens of millions tune in to watch the Super Bowl. Yet Wheldon is the mystery man in his homeland, a driver who had to cross the Atlantic to win recognition and who, even after winning his IndyCars title -only the second Briton after Nigel Mansell in 1993 - was still spurned by Formula One.
Formula One's loss is America's gain because Wheldon is a refreshing change from the dour, cynical and cautious world of grand prix racing. In Formula One, every salary is a state secret, but ask Wheldon what he earned last year and he shoots back: "$2.7 million (about Pounds 1.5million) plus another $1 million for winning the title." No embarrassment, no secrets. With Wheldon, what you see is what you get.
It is sometimes too easy to equate Britain's motor racing image and success with Formula One and Jenson Button's failure to win a grand prix after 100 races and the gradual fading of David Coulthard, which makes the sport seem a hopeless basket case of lost talent. But Wheldon is one of many drivers to prove that Formula One is not the be-all of motor racing, they just have to seek their fame and fortune elsewhere.
In 2005 -apart from Wheldon's prestigious IRL title -Andy Priaulx won the FIA World Touring Car Championships, while Lewis Hamilton, at 20, was the runaway winner of the European Formula Three series. Gary Paffett has earned a job as a test driver with McLaren Mercedes on the back of his impressive victory in the high-profile German DTM series -beating the likes of Jean Alesi, Mika Hakkinen and Allan McNish to the title -while the new Formula A Karting Champion is Oliver Oakes, a 17-year-old from Hopton in Norfolk.
They are Britain's successful class of 2005 but, Paffett aside, none will appear in Formula One in the short term, something that makes Wheldon despair. Aside from the shortage of top drives with any chance of winning, an embarrassingly substantial part of the Formula One grid has been made up by drivers who pay their way into the sport.
"It astonishes me that people pay up to $5 million for a test drive in Formula One," Wheldon said. "It makes no sense to me. There is no logic in it. Of course, I want to try Formula One but I have learnt from being in America that it is not the end of my career. I am very happy doing what I am doing and I am very successful at it."
Having been turned down by Honda and rejected out of hand by Williams, Wheldon held long negotiations with the new BMW Sauber team. He was even willing to take a step backwards and spend a year as test driver to learn the ropes of Formula One - a rare act of humility in sport. But BMW would still not offer him a guarantee of a race seat in 2007, in spite of a record that makes him a natural-born winner: six victories in his championship season as well as becoming the first Briton to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill in 1966.
Now Formula One stands a chance of losing Wheldon completely. Nascar, the biggest television draw in the US after American football, is casting covetous eyes towards a young man who is handsome, articulate and approachable -perfect box office. With Nascar driver salaries averaging about $25 million for a three year contract, Wheldon would be a top draw and able to command a substantial fee. The money doesn't matter. Wheldon already has three homes in the US and sponsorship deals to add to his winnings that have made him a substantially rich 27-year old.
The only thing that would make his career complete -as it would for so many other emigrant drivers -is recognition in his own homeland.
* START YOUR ENGINES
* BRITONS ON TRACK OUTSIDE FORMULA ONE
* GARY PAFFETT
DTM Championship winner. Born in Bromley, Kent, successful in lower series and winner of Autosport McLaren Young Driver of the Year in 1999. Transferred to the DTM championship, where he was second in first full year and champion last season.
* LEWIS HAMILTON
European Formula Three champion. Hamilton could be the first black driver in Formula One. From Stevenage in Hertfordshire, Hamilton, 20, was picked out as a prodigious talent by McLaren as he won every kart title he entered.
* ANDY PRIAULX
FIA World Touring Car champion. The 31-year-old is Britain's first FIA champion since Damon Hill won the Formula One world championship in 1996. Long career led to works drive with BMW, and the European and the world titles in saloon cars.
* OLIVER OAKES
World Formula A Kart champion. A student at King's School in Ely, Cambridgeshire, Oakes, 17, surprised the field by capturing the world title from some illustrious names, and now has to build on his victory by graduating through the ranks.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2006
Go west: Wheldon crossed the Atlantic and made his mark by becoming the Indy Racing League champion in September. Photograph by JONATHAN FERREY / GETTY IMAGES