Byline: Gary Graves
INDIANAPOLIS -- Dan Wheldon's fire-suit combination might best symbolize this thing the defending Indianapolis 500 champion has about shaking things up.
The admitted clotheshorse strolls through Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a combination that blinds -- rather -- catches the eye but works mainly because he has coordinated every detail. The pristine white driving shoes stand out because they conflict with his peers' choice of darker footwear, but the Brit takes the extra step of topping off with white sunglasses.
This grabs attention because Wheldon is daring enough to try it, the same way he raised eyebrows with his bold offseason move from Andretti Green Racing after three years to Chip Ganassi Racing before his name was etched into the trophy for winning last year's IRL IndyCar Series championship. Not since Tom Sneva left Roger Penske after winning the 1978 USAC title had a reigning champion switched teams.
Wheldon has no regrets because, in his world, change for the sake of change is sometimes necessary.
"I've always been one to shake things up," says Wheldon, 27, who joined 2003 champion Scott Dixon at Ganassi. "I hate to be boring. You know, I certainly felt that I served my time at Andretti Green Racing. They gave me a great opportunity. We were able to win a lot of races together.
"You've got to look at the big picture. ... (Ganassi and I) haven't known one another very well, but I've certainly known of what he's done in the past, although he hadn't been doing it these last couple years. Chip will do whatever he can do to get his cars in victory lane. I felt with the changes that they were making that they would be."
So far Wheldon's instincts have been validated. His Dallara/Honda was among the fastest this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he will start Sunday's 90th running on the outside front row, seeking to be the first back-to-back winner since Helio Castroneves (2001-02), who starts second.
That's somewhat appropriate, considering Castroneves and Wheldon are also 1-2 in the IndyCar standings, with Wheldon 42 points behind. If their season-opening duel at Homestead is any indication, this could evolve into one of the series' better rivalries. The March race already stands as the season's best finish as Wheldon and Castroneves went door-to-door, and at times wheel-to-wheel, over the final 15 laps. Wheldon seemed destined for second until he went high on the final lap and passed Castroneves to win his Ganassi debut by 0.0147 seconds.
"I don't care how many times you interview a guy, to see those last laps at Homestead was something no interview could pull out," Ganassi says.
"Dan's in that elite league of drivers. Looking back, if I didn't put him in that seat, it would be an injustice to his ability."
While Ganassi heard rumors Wheldon might be interested in leaving AGR and talked informally with him, he thought he'd merely be leverage in the driver's negotiations with AGR co-owners Michael Andretti and Kim Green. A meeting last August led to an agreement in principle, with the announcement coming after the season finale at California.
Wheldon dismissed reports he wanted out because he thought AGR was resting on its record, saying he drew out negotiations because he was troubled by details of the contract offer. Either way, Andretti just wanted his driver to choose so he could begin planning for 2006. Wheldon informed Andretti he was leaving just before last season's finale.
"We had started to suspect something and had negotiated for four months and was wondering what the holdup was," Andretti told USA TODAY in a conference call. "We gave him a deadline the night before (Fontana), and he said he couldn't do it."
Despite the awkwardness of Wheldon's departure, there appears to be no enmity with Andretti or his former teammates. He has been frequently seen around the Brickyard yakking it up with Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti, and his relationship with Andretti at least seems cordial.
"I just wanted to go somewhere else, no disrespect to AGR," Wheldon says. "They took me in as a rookie, I was successful and had a lot of fun. But you've got to do what's right for you, and sometimes it's at another place.
"I've achieved everything I wanted to achieve with winning the 500 and the championship, and I have nothing to prove to anybody but myself. I had started to get comfortable there, and at the end of the day you do what you've got to do to stay competitive."
That sounds odd for a driver who has basically won one of every five IndyCar starts and has finished in the top five in 60% of them. Last season was off the charts as Wheldon won four of the first five races (including Indy) en route to a record six victories, becoming the first driver to win the 500 and the championship in the same year.
There was nowhere to go but up, and Wheldon almost did that with BMW in Formula One. The deal, in which he would have been a test driver this season, with the option to race the next four to five years, fell through because it didn't meet his goal-oriented agenda. The terms also kept changing, which adds up to no deal in Wheldon's world.
This is why Wheldon is trying so hard to look good in the red and white of Target, the primary sponsor of his and Dixon's Hondas. Everything Ganassi said sounded good to Wheldon, who also sought input from F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indy champ. Others have speculated that a possible ride with Ganassi's NASCAR operation might have sweetened the offer, but Wheldon insists it was about proving himself in another car.
In that regard, Wheldon and his new team were made for each other. Since Dixon carried the banner for Ganassi in 2003, the team and others powered by Toyota quickly fell behind as Honda turned up the horsepower, with Kanaan and Wheldon leading the attack.
A perfect fit
Now that every team is powered by Honda, Wheldon is challenged to lead Ganassi back to prominence and prove success is as much about the driver as the system. In one sense this marks a departure from Ganassi's recent formula of taking young, unknown drivers and trying to mold them into champions.
At the same time, Wheldon fits right into his bottom-line philosophy.
"We're here to win all the time," Ganassi says. "Dan was the best driver available to us, so we took him. It's that simple. It's not about comparing drivers or comparing philosophies; it's taking the best driver available to you with the resources you have out there each year."
The only thing missing is the practical joking that defined Wheldon's tenure at AGR almost as much as his driving. Wheldon was usually the target of gags, but he had learned to dish it out as well.
He doesn't seem inclined to spring any hijinks on laid-back New Zealander Dixon, but it's still early.
"Nothing has happened yet, but I'm sure it's coming," Dixon says, noting he and Wheldon have hit it off as friends as well as teammates.
Missing in all the hoopla over Wheldon's present and future is the fact he's devoted to Indy racing, because last year's victory fueled an itch for more.
He downplays the idea of proving something because his victory from 16th place was overshadowed by the media storm after Danica Patrick's historic run, saying the public has come to recognize him as well.
By starting on the front row, Wheldon isn't just showing he's good in any car; he's right where he wants to be, positioned to be a mover and a shaker.
"Three is a lucky number for me, and I feel I'll be around long enough to win two more times, hopefully more," Wheldon says. "I will say I'm happy to have won it once, because not everybody gets to win it at all."
PHOTO, B/W, AJ Mast, AP; PHOTO, B/W, Nick Laham, Getty Images; PHOTO, B/W, Gavin Lawrence, Getty Images