Byline: Matthew Holehouse
Dan Wheldon died at the wheel in Las Vegas with many admirers watching on, but nowhere in the world was he held with greater affection than in Emberton, the Buckinghamshire village where he spent his childhood and where his parents, Clive and Susan, still live.
"Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday he left us doing what he loved," said his father Clive, 59. "He was a true gentleman and champion on and off the track. He was a devoted son to Sue and myself, loving husband to his wife Susie, and a loving father to his children Oliver [7 months] and Sebastian [2 years].
"Words cannot describe how much our family will miss him. He touched so many and the world is a better place for him having been in it.
"The whole village is proud of him and what he achieved," said John Adriaenssens, 29, landlord of the Bell and Bear pub.
"A lot of people from the village grew up with him and went to school with him. There's a big fan base, but in this country he didn't get the recognition he deserved."
The pub was packed to watch Wheldon become the first Englishman to win the Indianapolis 500 since 1966 in 2005, and again when he snatched victory for a second time earlier this year. "His kids are tiny and the thought of them growing up without a dad, it's horrible, horrible," added Adriaenssens.
Wheldon followed in his father's footsteps to begin karting in 1982, aged four.
Clive, an electrician, gave Dan "everything he could", locals say, and sent his son to nearby Bedford School, where he excelled in rugby, cross country and squash and captained the cricket team.
In a school report in 1993, his housemaster wrote: "Danny has a natural energy and zest for life that infects others."
"He was already driving karts by the time he joined the prep school in 1986. By the time he was 14 he was clearly way ahead of the level for his age," said Guy Fletcher, Weldon's form tutor and head of Games at the school.
"He was very small in stature, but he always had a big grin, and he was very modest, and incredibly popular.
"I had a long discussion with his parents when he was in fifth form about whether to do his A–levels. He worked really hard, but he was never academic, so it was obvious the best thing to do was to try full–time racing. I felt he was going to be successful."
That view was shared by those within motorsport. Alan Davidson, who grew up racing alongside Wheldon and Jenson Button in the British Cadet karting series, described him as a brilliant talent.
"He was the benchmark in those days," Davidson said. "We knew right from that age that one of us – either me, Jenson or Dan – would make it in F1. I don't know why but we just knew."
Like Davidson, however, Wheldon never got the right opportunity, and while Button forged a successful career in Formula One, he opted to try his luck in the United States.
He went on to become one of Indy–Car's stars, winning 16 races, including two Indy 500s and the IRL Indycar series itself in 2005.
"He would have made it in Formula One, no question," Davidson said. "But he was living the American dream."
Button expressed his regret via the social networking site Twitter. "I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early Nineties, a true fighter," he wrote. "We've lost a legend in motorsport but also a great guy."
Lewis Hamilton also paid tribute to Wheldon. "This is a tragic loss at such a young age," he said. "As a British guy, who not only went over to the States, but who twice won the Indy 500, he was inspirational."
Boy who learned the ropes with Button and Hamilton
Dan Wheldon's nimble handling and raw courage were first recognised as a young boy at Rye House, a modest karting track sandwiched between a scrapyard and a caravan site in Hertfordshire.
The track, running beneath two towering electricity pylons, has become a nursery for the greatest names in British motorsport. As a racing cadet, Wheldon won the British Championship in 1988, 1989 and 1990, with Jenson Button winning the year after. Lewis Hamilton was also a contemporary.
Nick Jest, 37, the shop manager at the track, also raced with Wheldon at the ICA European Championships in Gothenburg in 1993, and the pair appear either side of Hamilton on a junior drivers' trophy in the clubhouse.
"His era produced a lot of good drivers. [Wheldon, Button and Hamilton] went on their separate careers, but here, age 16, they were good pals, kicking a football around in the car park," he reflected.
"When he won the Indy 500, it was like a film. His mum was very ill at the time, and he paid tribute to her in tears on the podium when he won It is a very sad ending to a fairy–tale story.
"On the back of his helmet he always had a massive St George. That summed him up; he never gave up. He was a braveheart."
United in grief: Dan Wheldon's father Clive (far left), with sons Austin and Ashley, reads a statement yesterday, and team members in Las Vegas watch drivers complete five memorial laps after the horrific crash on Sunday
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