What’s Next For Dan Wheldon?

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After the Kentucky race, Dan Wheldon confirmed what most had been suspecting since midway through the 2009 season. He and Panther Racing will probably part ways at the end of this season. I throw in the qualifier of “probably”, because John Barnes of Panther Racing still insists that Wheldon is one of the options they are still considering for 2011. Most agree, however, that Wheldon will be elsewhere next March when the green flag waves at St. Petersburg.

Wheldon is quickly wearing out his welcome at as many teams as Tomas Scheckter. In fact, Wheldon made the same move from the No. 10 Target car to the No. 4 Panther car that Scheckter made in 2004. Scheckter, at least, produced a win at Panther before moving further down the IndyCar ladder. Scheckter then spent the next two years at Vision Racing before becoming a part-timer for Luczo-Dragon in 2008, then a complete hack for any team that would take his Mona Vie sponsorship from race to race. Is Wheldon headed down the same path?

Wheldon came onto the IndyCar scene with this same Panther team in 2002, when he drove a second Panther Racing car in the final two races of the season, finishing tenth and fifteenth respectively. He was tabbed by Michael Andretti to take over the third AGR car, following Michael’s planned retirement after the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Wheldon actually began driving that season at Indy, landing on his head in the north chute during the waning laps. Wheldon finished the 2003 season in strong fashion, racking up two third place finishes as well as a fourth in the final three races. He was certainly one to watch for 2004.

Entering his first full season of IZOD IndyCar Series competition, Wheldon did not disappoint. For the first three races of 2004, Wheldon scored two third place finishes as well as his first career victory at Motegi – giving Honda their first long-awaited victory at their home track. He followed that win with a third place finish at Indianapolis, and chalked up two more wins en route to a runner-up finish for the championship.

Wheldon threw down the gauntlet early in 2005, winning four of the first five races – including the Indianapolis 500. He finished the season with two more late wins and won the championship to go with his Indy victory. Dan Wheldon was on top of the racing world. His teammates appeared fond of him, most fans adored him and he had asserted himself as one of the premier drivers in the league.

For whatever reason, he decided to leave the Andretti-Green Racing team that had given him his big break. Instead, he would spend 2006 at Target Chip Ganassi Racing – a team that had struggled mightily for the previous two seasons, while saddled with the woefully underpowered Toyota engine. Wheldon looked like a genius when he won the first race with his new team at Homestead. However, he never won again until the final race of the season. Still, he had a very strong season laced with several second place finishes on his way to another second place in the season standings.

The next two seasons produced two wins each, as Wheldon finished a respectable fourth in the standings for both seasons. Unfortunately for Wheldon; his teammate, Scott Dixon, was posting much better results and finished second and first in the standings for 2007 and 2008. Plus, Dixon was able to achieve better results with far less drama than Wheldon. While Dixon would put up with cameras in his face, Wheldon seemed to seek them out. Wheldon was a magnet for attention and didn’t seem to mind blaming his crew for a loss, while Dixon quietly went about his business. If anyone was going to be loud and outspoken at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, it would be Chip Ganassi himself.

You always got the sense that Ganassi put up with Wheldon’s attention-getting, prima donna ways as long as he was winning. If that ever stopped – look out. After a long, drawn-out public drama; Wheldon was finally cut loose at the end of the 2008 season. He landed back at Panther, in what he termed as a homecoming. Is it really a homecoming if he only drove two races there in 2002?

Aside from three top-five finishes at Panther in 2009, things didn’t go well. The second half of the season produced a six race stretch that saw Wheldon finish anywhere from eleventh to twenty-second. There was palpable tension between Wheldon and the team and a lot of unhappy faces – on Wheldon in particular. Although the results have been slightly better this season, it’s pretty much been more of the same.

Now Wheldon has let us all know via Twitter that he plans to be elsewhere in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011. The big question is – where will he go? The silly season seems to be a little dormant right now, but all it takes is for one domino to fall and it will be in full swing. Some have speculated that he might go back to Andretti Autosport. Even if they had an open seat, I don’t see that happening. Others have mentioned replacing Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold, where Wheldon’s oval skills and Justin Wilson’s road course prowess would compliment each other. That’s possible, but I’m not aware that Dreyer & Reinbold is going to replace Conway. Plus, who’s to say that Justin Wilson will still be there next year? He may, but I believe his contract is up at the end of this season also. There have also been rumblings that Wheldon may be in line for Rafa Matos’ seat at de Ferran Dragon Racing, but I think that has no substance behind it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I think the best place for Wheldon is KV Racing Technology. While Wheldon has deep ties to Honda, I think his British ancestry would serve him well with that team’s connection with Lotus. It would be a natural to have Dan Wheldon driving a British racing green Lotus – much more so than Takuma Sato in the historic green livery of Jim Clark. Wheldon doesn’t have the reputation of being too terribly hard on equipment, which would be a welcomed change for a team that has experienced thirty-three crashes this season, with two races to go.

I still maintain that KV Racing Technology needs to scale back to a two-car team. Wheldon would be the lead driver, with a budding star as a teammate. Wheldon claimed to be ecstatic when he went to Panther, because he wouldn’t have a teammate. That didn’t work out so well. At KV, Wheldon could assume the role as elder statesman and a mentor. Regardless of his recent results, Wheldon is a former champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. That brings a lot of credibility and stability to a fledgling team. Being the team leader would appeal to Wheldon’s ego. I think it would be a very good fit for him.

Of course, a silly season discussion is not complete without speculating on Wheldon’s soon-to-be vacant seat at Panther. Graham Rahal has been linked to that seat, but probably only if his father fails to put together a program for him at Rahal-Letterman. My ideal situation would be to have Rahal and Ed Carpenter as teammates at Panther.

I’ve never been one to clamor for a mostly American series. But it did always disturb me to have Vitor Meira, a Brazilian; and Dan Wheldon, a Brit -  as spokesmen for the National Guard during their time at Panther. I was also a little uncomfortable with Raphael Matos, another Brazilian, as spokesperson for the US Air Force and the Marines last season. Call me old fashioned, but I think that the American Armed Forces should be promoted by Americans. I found it a little ironic at Watkins Glen on the Fourth of July, when Brit Dan Wheldon was doing his best to sound patriotic for the troops on Independence Day. Does he not know whom we had gained our independence from?

Ed Carpenter and/or Graham Rahal would not only give Panther an appropriate mouthpiece for the National Guard, they would give them a good one-two punch for ovals and road courses. Carpenter excels on ovals while Rahal’s strengths lie with the non-ovals; although he is better on ovals than Carpenter is on road courses.

The 2011 silly season is about to come out of its doldrums, with Wheldon being the most intriguing factor. It’s a shame to see how far a former champion and Indianapolis 500 winner has fallen in just five years. The big three (yes, I’ll count Andretti Autosport in there) are no longer within Wheldon’s grasp. He’s now going to have to settle for one of the better second-tier teams. I still think he can drive with the best of them, but he hasn’t shown that he’s the easiest person to work with. He’d better get an attitude adjustment quickly, or else he’ll find himself hawking NOS Energy Drink to the highest bidder of the lowest tiered teams on a part-time basis. I find that kind of sad.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “What’s Next For Dan Wheldon?”

  1. I’d like to see him at KVRT, but I could also see a fit at D&R.

    Dan’s too good a driver and spokesman not to land somewhere. If I’m a sponsor, I know he’s going to make sure my product gets placement, and that he will be in the mix at Indy.

  2. My friend and I were talking about this scenario this weekend. KVRT and Lotus seems like a natural fit, but does that KV ride provide a driver’s salary? I don’t know the answer to that. The only teams we could think of that pay salaries are the Big 3, Panther, Foyt?, Wilson at D & R? Does Dan Wheldon go the ride buying option or pull a Buddy Rice? I can see his pride leaning toward the Rice route. I couldn’t agree more about the National Guard sponsorship, not having an American driver in that car is just weird. Honestly, having a series full of foreign drivers doesn’t bother me in the least bit either, in fact I think it is kind of cool. Would it be nice to have the best up and coming American drivers land in the Indycar series, yes, but I’m not holding my breath.

  3. Don’t want to seem anti “foreign” drivers, because I’m not–but I agree about American drivers in National Guard car. I actually thought the same about the Boy Scouts car–nothing against Pink Lloyd, but JR Hidlebrand would have been a good marketing move in that car.

    Weldon in Lotus colors would be very appropriate–I think I would have him grow a pencil-thin mustache and market him as the snobby evil bad guy. How about Simona in a Nestle Swiss Miss car? WillPower in a Nutrisystem or Nicorette car (Powerade was too easy), Scott (not Dario) in the Dixie Cup car, Rahal in the Golden Grahams car and maybe KV racing could keep all four cars–sponsored by Progessive, Allstate, Geico and State Farm.

    • Redd,

      I’ve always scratched my head over Lloyd being in the boy scout car. Yeah, he’s an up and comer, but you’d think the sponsor would be seeking to promote an American for the purposes of activation.

      Wheldon in the NG car was odd, but still a bit better than Meira. I think the NG get’s their money worth with Dan, and don’t forget, they have the “best American racer in the world” driving for them in N-car. (Yes, that was snarky. Sorry June bug)

  4. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    George wrote: “I found it a little ironic at Watkins Glen on the Fourth of July, when Brit Dan Wheldon was doing his best to sound patriotic for the troops on Independence Day. Does he not know whom we had gained our independence from?”

    George, that is a cheap shot, just to be fair, 1.) Did Dan Weldon secure the NG sponsorship, answer, no he did not. 2.) Is Dan Weldon one of the best at getting his sponsors name out front in an interview, yes, in fact he may be the best driver of any in the IRL at promoting his sponsor/s. 3.) Dan Weldon, while being a British subject, was put in the inenviable position of having to promote our National Guard, is it a strange arrangement, no question. Has DW done a hell of a job of promoting our NG troops and all of our armed forces, without appearing to try to glom onto the idea not being an American? I don’t think there is any question.
    Weldon still has the stuff, it is simply a matter of the team he lands with being capable of preparing a car properly and rising to his level of performance. BTW… The way TK has been blubbering about how dangerous the ovals have been for the past few weeks, perhaps something will open up at AA…. I have always been a huge TK fan, but recently it has become apparent that TK may have lost his edge. And who could blame him, how many times can you smack the wall and be set ablaze before you acquire a permanent case of the yipps….

  5. While I agree that he would be a natural fit in the Lotus KV Racing car, can KV afford to pay a driver? According to Cavin Dan is making in the neighborhood of $1-2 Million. As they stand today, KV has 3 ride buyers. Would they drop Sato and pay for a driver? Granted, Dan’s salary might be less than Sato’s repair bills.

    I tend to agree with Joe. I could see Dan taking the “too proud to beg” Buddy Rice route and being out of the series entirely, except for one off rides at Indy. With his proven talent there, someone would always be willing to put him in a seat for the 500.

  6. The American Mutt Says:

    A couple quick points of contention. Hispanics are very prevelant in our armed services. They actually have a much higher enlistment rate than whites or african americans, if I’m not mistaken. I see your point though.

    In Dans defense, were it not for a bad pit stop late in the race, on two different tracks, and Sam doesn’t win two races in 06, and Dan takes the championship.

  7. I like your thinking on this, George. KV needs a driver that can keep their head in the game for more than half a race. I don’t see anybody at KV worth keeping. I thought Viso had potential, but he’s just not maturing. Sato was a mess in F1, and he’s continued that in IndyCar. A Wheldon/Lotus pairing would be very nice. Maybe they could pair him up with somebody moving up from the Lights?

    Rahal or Carpenter in a National Guard car would be excellent.

  8. Jeff Iannucci Says:

    Wheldon in the Lotus entry? Hmmm…
    http://twitter.com/MyNameIsIRL/status/23255669047

    Great minds think alike, George. Although the opposite may apply as well.

  9. I know Lloyd’s car is the BSA car (emphasis on A), but an Englishman did found the Boy Scouts.

  10. I think he should get the sponsorship of some dental center–the ones who made his teeth look like “Chicklets”–for those old enough to remember–the square white gum with a candy coating.

  11. I would like to see Dan hook up with KK and Vasser. They will all be on the same level with the new car and Dan will be a good shoe to shake it out for them and step up the efforts. I really think that KV is a winner waiting to happen and I would like to see it.

  12. Not sure about where Dan might end up. KV a possibility? Sure. Wheldon could also do well with DeFerran alongside Matos…that could in fact be a pretty stout punch for that team.

    Regarding Rahal, I can easily see HIM winding up with KV if a deal doesn’t happen with his Dad’s team. Vasser drove for Bobby in CART/ChampCar a few years back, and KV isn’t a ‘fledgling’ team…they just wound up with about the worst driver lineup in modern era racing this year, so it makes the team look a bit marginal perhaps. To keep putting the cars on track week-in and week-out (despite the drivers’ attempts to knock down everything they can with the cars), they’re a much more capable group than a lot of others. The fact that I still have a good friend working on the team, knowing the quality-wrench he is (outstanding) evidences it to me, ’cause if it were marginal (or worse), he wouldn’t stick around.

    Yep, that’s a prediction right there…if Rahal-Letterman doesn’t field a car for Graham, expect to see him as the primary shoe at KV, or on equal terms with Wheldon as a teammate (if Dan doesn’t go with DeFerran).

  13. I’ve been saying the same for months too. I’d love to see an all-British team at KV with Wilson moving over as well (though I doubt it). As for the 4 car, I’d love to see a few guys in there: Rahal and Hildebrand for obvious reasons, or Jonathan Summerton. Keep in mind that JS has won in nearly every series he’s competed in (and had solid finishes in Lights) and almost had the Atlantic Championship this year. He’d make an excellent National Guard spokesman – he’s a good all-American kid (and the only American to ever win in A1GP) and he uses social media well and often. I don’t see how Panther (or any team) could pass him up.

  14. Farmula Won Says:

    Lloyd is in the “Boy Scouts” car, because he gave Coyne a check. Had nothing to do with that nationality he was. All Coyne (and most Indy Car owners) care about is who brings them the check.

    Plus, there isn’t much real money coming from the Boy Scouts anyway. Milka Money is probably helping Coyne more then the Boy Scouts.

    Wheldon should be at KV next year. Lotus would be stupid to not want an Englishmen, who has won the Indy 500 and a Indy Car championship, in their car. I see Wheldon and Sato driving for KV next year full-time, with the possibility of Casey Mears doing the Indy 500 with GEICO sponsorship in a 3rd car.

    The ideal Panther team, would be Rahal full-time, with Carpenter and Hildebrand sharing the 2nd car.

    Indy Car DESPERATELY needs more American drivers. The foreign driver thing, has driven the series into the dumper. Its why the TV ratings (anybody seen a rating lately?), sponsor interest (non existant) and overall national interest (non existant) are at embarrassingly low levels.

  15. If someone doesn’t offer him an opportunity, I would rather see Dan retire. I don’t want to see Indy 500 champions become ride buyers. That would be too sad.

  16. It is a mystery to me as to why Dan Wheldon is not with one of the big three teams. He is one of the best IndyCar drivers in the history of the sport. The issue of attitude is moot. If the owners , managers and fellow team mates are that sensitive and meek, they should consider a career change themselves or man up.

  17. Dan has signed with Andretti Autosport. This opportunity opened up when 7-11 pulled their sponsorship of Tony Kanaan’s can. Dan is signed, sealed, and delivered for the 4th Andretti entry in 2011.

    I’m glad to see Dan back with Andretti – Dan never should have left there.

  18. i thihk dan wheldon is the best oval driver ever,

  19. I greatly miss Dan in the Indy series and was not aware of his most recent personal developments. I’m thrilled he is happy with the choices he has made and know that he will somehow be back in rare form. I wish him and his family well and can’t wait to see him on the track again.

    Sincerely,

    Holly LaMarche

  20. Brown Haired Warrior Says:

    How bout now?

  21. Charlie H. Says:

    Godspeed Dan. We will miss you.

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