Sunday April 05, 2009
Wheldon Confident In New Role
St. Pete driver says he doesn't regret leaving Ganassi for one-car Panther.
By TONY FABRIZIO
ST. PETERSBURG - St. Petersburg's Dan Wheldon is an Indianapolis 500 winner and a former Indy Racing League champion. He enters today's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as something he hasn't been in a long time:
Pride, faith and self-confidence drove the 30-year-old native of Emberton, England, to relinquish one of the best rides on the circuit with Chip Ganassi Racing to drive for Panther Racing, a single-car operation that has won a pair of championships but doesn't have the budget of the premier teams.
While recent IRL domination by Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Green would seem to suggest he has forfeited any championship aspirations, Wheldon contends he'll be a factor with the team owned by John Barnes, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh and six others.
"The easy thing for me to do would have been to stay at Ganassi," says the winner of the 2005 St. Petersburg race.
Wheldon, who will start 11th today, actually made two starts for Panther early in his career. He signed with Andretti Green Racing in 2003 and became one of the IRL's top drivers.
After a blockbuster 2005 season in which he won six races, including the Indy 500, and the championship, Wheldon left AGR for Ganassi, believing he'd be better equipped to battle Penske's drivers year in and out.
He finished second to Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. for the 2006 title and won two of the first four races in 2007 before tailing off somewhat last year while teammate Scott Dixon won the championship.
Wheldon says he planned to re-sign with Ganassi when the owner offered an extension in May. He changed his mind after hearing that Ganassi was talking to veteran Tony Kanaan, who was in the final year of his contract with AGR.
"[Ganassi] told me I could look in the whites of his eyes; we had a deal," Wheldon says.
Ganassi says he was up front with Wheldon about his interest in Kanaan, who says it was actually his agent who spoke to Ganassi.
"I told Dan, 'If there was a seat open at Penske [Racing] and it was the end of your contract, you'd probably go talk to them,'" Ganassi says. "I said, 'I'm not saying you'd leave and go to Penske, but you'd probably talk to them.'
"I was going to go talk to Kanaan just for my own edification."
Kanaan re-signed with AGR last summer. By that time, though, Wheldon, feeling betrayed, was well into exploring his own options.
They included Panther, which was parting ways with Vitor Meira at the end of the year.
Wheldon's agent, Adrian Sussmann of CSS Stellar Sports, approached Panther boss Barnes at the Kentucky race in early August, and the parties had an agreement shortly thereafter.
Mike Hull, Ganassi's managing director, recalls getting the news from Ganassi before the Detroit Grand Prix in late August that Wheldon wasn't coming back.
"Dan had an agreement in front of him, and we thought he was going to sign it and bring it to the Detroit race," Hull says. "Chip called a and I could tell from the inflection in his voice that something had changed.
"He said, 'You're not going to believe this: Dan has decided he doesn't want to drive our car next year.' I said, 'You're kidding.' He said, 'No.'"
Ganassi quickly turned to Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 champion who had left the IRL to drive for Ganassi in NASCAR. The NASCAR opportunity didn't work out, and Franchitti was looking to get back into the IRL with a top ride.
Hull still sounds surprised about the turn of events, and says losing Wheldon was a blow.
"Dan Wheldon contributes greatly to a team," he says. "He was part of the reason Dixon won the championship. That kind of guy is hard to replace."
Panther is the last team other than Penske, AGR or Ganassi to win an IRL championship, getting back-to-back titles with Hornish in 2001 and 2002. While Barnes asserts that anybody who thinks his team can't contend now "is full of it," the consensus is that Wheldon has taken a step backward.
Single-car teams are at too much of a disadvantage, having fewer resources and not being able to maximize limited testing and practice time with data sharing.
"I think he certainly has the capability to win races," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric says. "[But] it will be much more difficult for him without a teammate, because teammates push each other and can draw off each other's data."
Wheldon sounds relaxed, loose, happy. He and his wife, Susie, became parents Feb. 1 with the birth of Sebastian Daniel.
The grand prix is Wheldon's home event, "a busy weekend," and he'll host a party tonight for friends and anyone else who wants to show at the Push Ultra Lounge downtown.
Barnes said he believes he has landed "the best driver in Indy car racing," and Wheldon seems confident he has made the right move.
"I feel the opportunity at Panther is very, very good," he says.
Reporter Tony Fabrizio can be reached at (813) 259-7994.
Photo credit: Tribune photo by MICHAEL SPOONEYBARGER
Photo: Panther driver Dan Wheldon qualifies Saturday for his home event, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which he won in 2005 with Andretti Green Racing.
Photo: Dan Wheldon
Former IRL champion won in St. Pete in '05
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