Where Does Wheldon Go From Here?
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.