Skip to main content

Hundreds gather for funeral of auto racer Dan Wheldon

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 8:37 PM EDT, Sat October 22, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: In a letter read by a friend at the funeral, Wheldon's wife says she's "scared"
  • NEW: Speakers recall Wheldon as a great person and beloved family man, as much as a driver
  • The Englishman, 33, lived in St. Petersburg with his wife and two young sons
  • The two-time Indy 500 winner died Sunday after a crash in Las Vegas

(CNN) -- Hundreds gathered Saturday in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the funeral of Dan Wheldon, remembering him as a winning personality and family man as much as a star on the race track.

Born in Emberton, England, Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champ, had settled in the west Florida city with his wife and two young sons.

Susie Wheldon spoke to her late husband through a letter read aloud by family friend Michael Johnson at the First Presbyterian Church. Audio from that message, and other parts of Saturday's otherwise private ceremony, were recorded and released by CNN affiliate WTSP.

"I am so scared. Scared I'm going to forget things as time goes by: the way you smell, the sound of your voice, the touch of your hand," she wrote.

Dan Wheldon was near the back of the 34-car field at the Las Vegas Indy 300 on Sunday when he got mixed up in a crash that saw several cars spin out of control and burst into flames, spewing smoke and debris. He died of "blunt head trauma," said an official at the Clark County Coroner's Office, who was not named per the office's policy.

The funeral for the 33-year-old Wheldon stirred resoundingly warm recollections of him as a driver and man.

"We lost a great friend," team owner Roger Penske told WTSP on Saturday outside the Florida church. "We love speed, we take risks, (but) we don't understand tragedy like today."

Wynonna Judd -- whose half-sister Ashley is married to one of Wheldon's pallbearers, driver Dario Franchitti -- sang at the funeral. The speakers included agent Adrian Sussman, who recalled the positive effect that Susie Wheldon and the couple's two boys had on his friend.

Besides those inside, dozens of people stood nearby the church to pay their respects.

In lieu of flowers, friends and fans were asked to donate to the fund or to the Alzheimer's Association, a cause close to the late driver's heart. His mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009.

NASCAR said it will provide teams at the Talladega Superspeedway this weekend with a decal in honor of Wheldon.

The decal features an image of a knight and the word "Lionheart." Wheldon likened himself to Richard the Lionheart, the 12th-century British warrior king, and often wore the image on the back of his helmets.

"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.

IndyCar has said a public memorial service will be held Sunday at the Conseco Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis.

"Although the last few days have been unbearable for our family, the overwhelming love and support we have received are rays of sunshine during these dark days. The outpouring of sympathy and condolences has been so comforting, and I want to thank everyone for their kind notes, letters, gifts and flowers," Susie Wheldon said in a statement released Saturday.

CNN's John Branch contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT