Where Does Wheldon Go From Here?

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When the IZOD IndyCar Series season concluded in early October, the general consensus was that Dan Wheldon would probably return to Panther Racing for a third season in 2011. There was a much-publicized lawsuit filed by Wheldon in August against his employer for owed salary, as well as the lack of chemistry and results. Still, it appeared on the surface that neither party had a better option and would probably be together again next season.

Given the fact that Panther had such strong results with Ed Carpenter in a second car, many thought that a two-car effort featuring Wheldon and Carpenter might be the way to go for Panther. Others, myself included, thought that a Kanaan/Wheldon pairing at Panther made sense.

A lot has happened in the past two months. Kanaan appears headed to de Ferran Dragon Racing, Ed Carpenter has signed with Sarah Fisher Racing and after a successful test in Phoenix last week – Panther seems to be on the verge of signing American driver J.R. Hildebrand. Signing Hildebrand makes sense for Panther. I know I’m in the minority in this thinking, but I still feel as if any branch of the American Armed Forces needs an American to be a spokesperson. Wheldon did an excellent job in that role, but it always seemed a little hollow to me.

So is it possible that Wheldon may be the one without a chair when the music stops with the drop of the green flag at St. Petersburg in March? If so, the IZOD IndyCar Series will only have three full-time drivers that have won the Indianapolis 500; Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. That’s the fewest number since 1997-98 when Arie Luyendyk and Buddy Lazier were the only two drivers that had ever tasted milk.

How has this happened? How has a former Indianapolis 500 winner and series champion fallen so quickly? On the surface, Wheldon seems to carry all the tools. He is obviously a talented driver and he is a marketer’s dream. He is good with the media, he always works in the sponsors name and usually has a sponsor’s product conveniently in hand for every interview, turned precisely for maximum camera exposure – and he is great with the fans. So why does it appear that he has worn out his welcome in the series?

Some say that when the IZOD IndyCar Series began adding more and more road/street courses – it exposed a major flaw in Wheldon’s resume. They claimed he didn’t bring the same level of talent to those venues that he did on the ovals, which is odd – given his background in the developmental ladder. A quick glance at his record shows otherwise. He won the series very first road/street course race at St Petersburg in 2005 – his championship season with Andretti-Green. Although he did finish eighteenth at Sonoma that season, he finished fifth at Watkins Glen. Two top-fives including a win at the three road courses that season isn’t too shabby. The next three seasons – all with Ganassi – provided a mixed bag. There was a third at Detroit and a fourth at Sonoma mixed in with a sixteenth at St. Pete and a twenty-fourth at Watkins Glen.

Results were even worse during his two seasons at Panther, but was that the driver’s fault or the team’s? I know this is a sacrilege among the old IRL purists – but ever since Sam Hornish left after the 2003 season, Panther Racing has become the destination for drivers to begin the downturn in their career. Drivers such as Tomas Scheckter, Townsend Bell, Mark Taylor, Tomas Enge, Vitor Meira and now, Dan Wheldon have all left Panther Racing as perceived damaged goods. Yet this team receives a pass due to its championships with Hornish in another era.

So where does Wheldon go from here? With early December signings, there aren’t many seats left. It’s possible he could land at Dreyer & Reinbold as a teammate to fellow Brit Justin Wilson, but I don’t see that happening. Mike Conway is still a possibility for that seat, although there doesn’t seem to be a huge rush to get him re-signed. For some reason, I just don’t see Wheldon meshing with engineer Larry Curry at Dreyer & Reinbold. With a veteran like Wilson already confirmed back for 2011, I see Dreyer & Reinbold going after a younger talent like Conway or Alex Lloyd that can learn from a road course expert like Wilson. Although Wheldon’s oval expertise could benefit Wilson and DRR – I just don’t see that playing out.

Probably, his best bet now would be to somehow latch on at KV Racing Technology. Their ties to Lotus are set to get stronger in the next couple of years. A Brit at KV would be a great fit for Lotus and Wheldon has already proven he can speak for a company and/or product. Apparently, Takuma Sato is set at KV for 2011. I would think Dan Wheldon would be considered a significant upgrade over EJ Viso or Mario Moraes. Of course, they haven’t bothered to ask me and it’s their opinion that counts – not mine.

Wheldon could win at KV. The common thought throughout the paddock is that this was a team that was poised to win a couple of years ago, but instead their three-car team set a record for crashes in 2010. Maybe having a seasoned, savvy veteran like Wheldon will help bring some stability to their crash-laden program.

In the meantime, Wheldon needs to reassess his goals and priorities if he wants to continue driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series. His next team is probably his last, if he doesn’t produce some improved results (read: wins). The series needs him almost as bad as he needs the series. It would be in everyone’s best interest for Wheldon to keep putting his best foot forward and do what it takes to get along and produce, or else we may be seeing the last of Dan Wheldon.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Where Does Wheldon Go From Here?”

  1. It would make me sick if Dan didn’t get a ride. He is a class act and one of the best faces for Indycars. Fair enough street circuits/road courses are not his speaciality. But then you have pay drivers like Justin Wilson, Mike Conway, Takuma Sato etc who can only produce results on road courses and then crash on ovals. Dan is a guy who has won on both types of circuits. If he goes it would be one less reason to watch and I guess he will join the likes of Rice, Servia, Junqueira, Scheckter etc and be forced to do sports cars or Indy only.

  2. Could it be that Weldon is caught in the new world order between driver’s who used to get paid and the driver’s who now have to bring money? I heard that Kanaan, who made something like 2 mil. a season is now having to bring money in order to drive. Does Dan bring any sponsorship with him?

  3. Wheldon’s in trouble…Andretti is his best bet, even at a low amount of money, it gives him a competitive ride and when things start to improve, he can ask for a good salary. KV’s not a bad bet, the car’s are fast, the current drivers aren’t good. Wheldon’s one of the more interesting drivers, losing him would be pretty bad.

  4. Sure I won’t make myself populair by saying what I’m going to say, but I have never been too fond of Dan Wheldon. Every since I started watching every IRL IndyCar race in 2006, he has slowly but steadly been fading. The last two years he barely got any good results. Now, perhaps that is of the too high expectations I have of Panther Racing, but only four top 3 results is not that great for the talent Wheldon is supposed to be and the good team Panther Racing is supposed to be. A driver that doesn’t return very much results is not worth the investment. I would rather see a young talent take up that seat and show what he or she can.

    I’m also not much of a fan of shoving that energydrink thing into my face during every interview on tv either. Some things can be overdone. But that has nothing to do with his skills as a driver.

    I personally wouldn’t care if he would disappear from the series, but unfortunately the series also isn’t in a state where it can lose a populair driver. I hope he will be there in 2011, but won’t shed a tear if he isn’t.

    • I guess your kinda right there, he did under perform at Ganassi and in 2004-05 when he dominated he had the best car in the field. It seems that after the 2007 Indy 500 he somewhat lost his motivation. While I really like Dan you made a point, he is damn expensive. I read somewhere he earned or is in dispute over $2.5 million he was supposed to be paid at panther in 2009-10 even though he finished 10th and 9th. If Panther signed an American like J.R. Hildebrand it would make 10 times more sense than to keep Dan.

  5. It would be interesting to see if Dan would ever set up his own team. Yes he has the name ‘difficult Dan’ for a reason but the guy seems to have that something in him that would probably make him a good team owner. Maybe one of the manufacturers could give him some support in 2012. Lotus couldn’t ask for anything more, a British driver who has a pretty stellar Indy record. Or maybe NASCAR would be an option, if TK decides to go to Luczo Dragon then Wheldon could take up Kyle’s Busch offer to run in the Truck series.

  6. Good thoughts, and a good article. I actually agree on Wheldon being a good fit at KV. I’ve actually been thinking on their current situation a lot, and think Wheldon makes sense on a lot of levels. That alone probably means it won’t happen. :) I think Viso still improving, but I would seriously be chugging the Tums if I knew Sato and Moraes might be having another crack at my equipment next year.

    I actually decided to spin this off to a post on my site, which I’ll post up tomorrow. Thanks!

  7. Stephen_P83 Says:

    I hope JR gets the National Guard ride. George, you mentioned you’re in the minority believing the driver of a car sponsored by the US Military. Count me as part of the minority as well. Now, I’m not one of those people railing against the lack of American drivers in the IICS. I am primarily a fan of F1, where there are no Americans and the only potential prospect is still a few years away. As a currently serving member of the US Armed Forces (Captain, US Army), I have always felt that an American needs to be in that car. The sponsorship represents the US Military…in what way is a non citizen or permanent resident representative of what the sponsor is looking to attract? JR is a young American male, he’s physically fit, and he is the exact demographic the US Military is seeking to attract. So, you can count me in the minority but I don’t believe a non American should ever represent the US Armed Forces.

  8. The Lapper Says:

    KV for Dan. KV needs to step up and Dan could be the guy.

  9. chrisleone Says:

    Agreed with the rest of the folks on KV. I do believe that your driver needs to have some sort of connotation to your sponsor’s product – and to that end I agree with you, George, that American drivers should be endorsing our military. Nothing against Meira, Matos, or Wheldon, but it just seems a weird fit. Wheldon was the closest thing to an exception, though.

    Now a Brit at KV makes perfect sense. I think that’s why Lotus tried to install James Rossiter in the third car last year, albeit to no avail. I would replace Sato, not Viso or Moraes, though. Sato has never impressed me, not even in Formula One, where I seem to recall him divebombing hairpins now and again. Viso and Moraes are quick, and once they get tamed with the help of a veteran (Wheldon would be a good idea) they’ll run up front. I know Wheldon’s been a Honda driver for most of his career, but…

  10. Reading The Tea Leaves Says:

    Wheldon to Andretti’s 4th car (possible partial schedule, if he takes Kyle Busch’s truck offer). John Andretti runs a 5th car at Indy.

    Conway to KV’s 2nd Lotus car. Sato, Conway and Viso are the 3 drivers for KV.

    Andy Soucek to D&R’s 2nd or 3rd (depending on how many races Tracy gets) car.

    AJ Allmendinger runs the Indy 500 in Panther’s 2nd car.

  11. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    Soucek for D&R would be an interesting choice. He’s a decent enough driver, but he tends to throw wobbler’s and could be a potentially destabilising factor.

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