Byline: BRANT JAMES
Dan Wheldon strode off a jetliner ready to conquer a new world. His expectations were quickly tempered.
There he sat on a bench at the arrivals loop at Orlando-Sanford Airport, on an otherwise ordinary January day in 1999. He was scanning passing vehicles, waiting for new race team owner Jon Baytos, who had given the 20-year-old a chance at a toehold in North American racing.
Within six years Wheldon would become one of the top racers in not only the Indy Racing League (its 2005 series champion and Indianapolis 500 victor) but the world. But this start was inauspicious.
"I'm standing there with five bags and waited where we'd arranged to meet. Nothing," recalled Wheldon, who lives in St. Petersburg. "For three hours, nothing. And eventually this old lady came up and she says to me, 'Are you the English kid who's coming here to race?' I said, 'Yep.' She said, 'He isn't coming to pick you up. You've got to get in a cab.'
"So I got in a cab from Orlando-Sanford to Tampa, and he eventually met me at Tampa. And I was so (upset) at the guy."
Wheldon insisted Baytos pay the cab fare (he did), and a snit soon turned into a friendship as much as a career-defining opportunity.
"With Jon, you can't be mad at him, because he's just that kind of guy," Wheldon smiled. "I have a lot of time for him to this day. We're very good friends.
"Wheldon, as he bluntly admits, was no one in racing terms when he arrived from Emberton, England, to drive for Jon and brother Brad Baytos' Primus Racing in the Formula 2000 Series. But at least he could afford it. Drivers must pay their way at that level, and though his "heart was set" on the English Formula 3 series, a team budget was 500,000 pounds, now more than $900,000. Wheldon and his family, though successful in plumbing in England, had about 30,000 pounds to spend on racing, he said.
So off to America he went at the suggestion of friend David Besnard, who had just won the Formula 2000 championship with Primus.
"He was a good driver, but he was like anybody else," said Brad Baytos, who estimated Wheldon paid about half the normal $200,000 for a Primus ride. "He turned out to be really good."
Several Primus projects did. Three consecutive Indianapolis 500 winners - Buddy Rice (2004), Wheldon (2005) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2006) - either raced for or had material support from the team, now based at the brothers' test track in Palmetto.
Wheldon dominated, with six wins and his first-ever season championship with Primus, before moving on to the Champ Car and later IRL developmental series. In 2003 he joined Andretti Green Racing and was rookie of the year. He was second in points in 2004 and first in 2005. Last season he left for Chip Ganassi Racing, where he tied for the final points lead, but ceded the title because Hornish had two more wins.
"Had it not been for him, I might not be here today," Wheldon said of Baytos last week at Indianapolis 500 media day.
Jon occasionally joins Wheldon on some of his "rock and roll escapades, whatever I can handle at my age," and he never knows when Wheldon might show up at their Group Four Test Track. Such was the case one infamous day in 2005.
"We were down here doing testing for young kids. Dan turned up one day, with his swim gear on," Jon Baytos chuckled. "I got in the (Formula 2000) car, which I don't usually do, and did some laps, and he thought it was a good laugh, so he was going to show me how great he was. He just slipped into it with his bare feet and his shorts on and went off and did some running. And yeah, he was fastest."
To make things fair, Wheldon insisted there would be no shoes, no helmet, no seat belts allowed. His boss, Michael Andretti, likely would not have been pleased.
"It was just something crazy we did that day," Brad Baytos said. "Dan really hasn't changed a whole lot.
"Wheldon smiled about the alleged craziness, saying, "If that's what he says happened, you can say he said it happened."
All in all, another grand memory in a bold move that paid off.
"I got to very much enjoy the way of American life and American motor racing," he grinned. "Now I'm to the point where I turned down a potential Formula One offer (with BMW-Sauber) to stay in America, so it shows you how far I've come."
A long way from Orlando-Sanford Airport.
PHOTO: Dan Wheldon