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Wheldon remembered as driver with heart

By Phil Gast, CNN
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Mon October 17, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The two-time Indy 500 winner was killed Sunday at a Las Vegas race
  • Born in England, he likened himself to Richard the Lionheart
  • He also was a bit superstitious
  • Drivers recall Dan Wheldon's growing maturity, love of family

(CNN) -- Dan Wheldon brought a bit of England with him when he began driving extremely fast cars in the United States.

"When I first started racing, a lot of the guys said that I raced with a lot of heart, occasionally not my head, but always with a lot of heart, like the way that Richard the Lionheart fought in battle," Wheldon wrote on a sponsor's blog in 2010.

Wheldon placed a small mural of the 12th-century warrior king on his helmet in 1995, before he competed in America and eventually released "Lionheart," a biographical photo book.

Wheldon's fellow IndyCar drivers remembered the heart, competitiveness and growing maturity of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who died in a horrific multi-car wreck at a Las Vegas event on Sunday at age 33.

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"Dan came over years ago as a young, brash kid from England," former IndyCar driver Lyn St. James said Monday, "and we watched him mature into being this absolute, consummate professional ... He touched so many people."

A shaken Dario Franchitti, speaking after the canceled Las Vegas Indy 300, said "one minute you're joking around ... the next, Dan's gone."

"We can put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships and it's what we love to do," said Franchitti, who knew Wheldon since he was a child. "And it's what we live for. And then on days like today, it doesn't really matter. I lost, we lost ... a good friend."

Franchitti recalled Wheldon's early IndyCar years.

"He was kind of brash, but he was a charmer," Franchitti said. "He became this loving family guy. He was still charming, but he had this whole new side to him."

Wheldon, 33, left behind his wife, Susie, and two young boys, Sebastian and Oliver. They live in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Born in Emberton, England, Wheldon raced go-karts at the age of 4. His father was a go-kart racer and his mother was the timer at a local track. He was an IndyCar rookie in 2003 and won his first Indianapolis 500 two years later.

Superstitious, the driver as an adult would tap his race car three times before getting in on the non-gear stick side, according to his IndyCar bio.

After his second Indy 500 victory in May, Wheldon talked with CNN's "American Morning" about serving as a spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association. His mother was diagnosed with the disease in 2009.

After his win, however, he found himself unemployed. "This time off that I've had has truly made me understand and really grasp how much I love driving the cars themselves," he told CNN World Sport in June. "Indy cars are fantastic to drive ... I want to be part of that, there's no doubt about it."

At that time he said he wasn't sure what the rest of the year would hold as far as sponsorship. "If it means me sitting out the rest of the season in order to have a positive ride in 2012, then that's the best thing for me," he said.

Sunday, drivers in Las Vegas did a five-lap salute in Wheldon's memory. "Amazing Grace" played as the drivers slowly wound their way around the track.

The driver's father-in-law, Sven Behm, told CNN North Carolina affiliate WGHP that he had told Wheldon to have a safe race. The competitor assured him vehicles, which routinely reached speeds in excess of 225 miles per hour, had been made safer in recent years.

"He wasn't just a great driver," said Behm. "But he was a great human being. He was always very positive."

He said Wheldon's sons are age 2 1/2 and 7 months.

CNN "World Sport" anchor Patrick Snell said "Dan Wheldon is a character. ... Extremely popular. Huge respect from his peers."

There is no question that the world of motorsports has lost one of its favorite sons," Snell said Sunday night.

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