UK wakes up to Wheldon's fame

2011-10-18 07:51

EMBERTON, England - Struggling to hold back tears, Clive Wheldon's voice quivered as he spoke about the tragic death of his son in Sunday's fiery IndyCar crash.

"Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do," he told reporters outside the family home in the sleepy English village of Emberton, a far cry from the high-powered world of auto racing in which his son became one of Britain's most famous sporting exports.


News of Dan Wheldon's death, at the age of 33, in a 15-carr crash in the Las Vegas Indy 300 dominated newspaper headlines and newscasts in Britain on Monday and, sadly, it took the dramatic nature of his death to finally earn Wheldon some notoriety in his birth country. Two victories in the Indianapolis 500 - one of America's iconic sporting events - catapulted him into superstar status in America and established him as one of the few Britons to master his sport across the Atlantic.

But Wheldon was far from a household name in Britain, where F1 is the top motor sport and IndyCar receives little coverage or recognition.

Wheldon's loss was most keenly felt among the motorsport fraternity which had long recognised his talent starting from his youth as a kart driver, and in Emberton, a village in Buckinghamshire - a county just north of London - where he grew up and where his parents Clive and Sue still live.

"The family would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy," said Clive, reading slowly from a prepared statement and flanked by sons Austin and Ashley. "He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."

A floral tribute was placed in the heart of the village. One read: "R.I.P. Dan. You'll be missed champ".

NO FAME IN UK: Dan Wheldon, pictured with his wife Susie and sons Sebastian and baby Oliver.

Wheldon won eight British karting titles after taking up the pursuit as a four-year-old, He left Emberton for the US in 1999 after failing to secure financial backing for his career in Europe. He quickly embraced the American lifestyle and soon got his chance in the IndyCar series. Titles and fame soon followed.

In 2005, he became the first English driver since Graham Hill 39 years earlier to win the Indy 500, helping him capture the overall IndyCar championship that year. He went on to win the Indy 500 again in 2011 after taking the lead for the first time with only seconds remaining.

"He was an extremely talented driver," said British driver Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 F1 champion. "As a British guy who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was inspirational, someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration."

Beyond the U.S., though, there was precious little coverage of Wheldon's exploits on the track. Even in Emberton, residents knew of him as simply a successful racing driver rather than a long-time star of the IndyCar circuit. Wheldon was much better known in racing circles.

British Racing Drivers' Club president Derek Warwick said: "Two victories in the Indy 500 put him in a very select group of drivers. Dan was a true professional and a great ambassador for the sport. He was highly focused in the way he approached his racing, a real perfectionist.

"With his film-star good looks and athletic prowess, it was no wonder the American public took him to their hearts."

Jenson Button, Hamilton's F1 team mate at McLaren, was one of Wheldon's rivals in junior karting in the 1990's. He described him as "a true fighter".

"We've lost a legend in our sport and also a great guy," Button said on Twitter. 

Indy racing drivers react to Wheldon's death.