(Note from the author: I interviewed race car driver Dan Wheldon twice over the years, the longest conversation in 2006 for the Maddux Business Report. We weren’t friends by any measure but he was literally a part of our community in St. Petersburg, Florida; Wheldon and his wife and two boys lived in our neighborhood and his many sports successes were always a local source of pride. After we heard the sad, shocking news today (October 16, 2011) that he died in a massive crash while racing in Las Vegas, I remembered this Q&A and thought some of his fans — and our neighbors might enjoy reading it and remembering this fine young man who was taken from all of way too young — BA)
He’s just 26, a British-born bachelor with the world at his feet and he calls St. Petersburg home. Dan Wheldon was the IRL rookie of the year in 2003 and won the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Weeks later he took home the championship of the Indianapolis 500 as well. But he wasn’t done there; just to finish an incredible year, he won the entire Indy Racing League season series – earning a $1 million bonus – with a record six overall victories, including three in a row at one point.
Not bad for a guy who a year ago was best known for having a similar sounding name to the racing world’s other singular sensation, 2005 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick. The Maddux Business Report’s Bob Andelman recently chatted with Wheldon about living in the bay area and how success has – or hasn’t – changed him.
MADDUX REPORT: Why do you live in St. Petersburg? Isn’t it a little off the beaten, well, track?
DAN WHELDON: When I raced in Europe in 98, my next step was to go to Formula 3. The owner of our team asked me if I’d be interested in going to America. The team I drove for was based in St. Petersburg and I liked it. I became friendly with a guy in St. Petersburg, Jonathan Newberg – his father owns Newberg Irrigation – and he knew a lot of people. I stayed in touch with Jonathan and when I got the opportunity to come back, I jumped at it.
When I felt comfortable being able to live away from Indianapolis, St. Petersburg was my next destination.
MR: Has the community embraced you? Are you recognized around town?
WHELDON: It’s sometimes difficult because I get invited to things, but it’s just not possible to attend due to my travel commitments. For the limited time I’m back here, I don’t get to be around as much as I’d like. But I love the people that live around me.
I’m always in the Starbucks on 4th street. I like Ceviche and the Vinoy and its restaurants. My favorite spot is probably the Vinoy.
In terms of being recognized in St. Petersburg, it tends to happen more and more. I think we get pretty good press coverage in the area because St. Petersburg has an Indy 500 winner and IRL champion living in the area.
MR: Have you developed any business or sponsorship opportunities from living here?
WHELDON: We’ve talked to a few companies and done appearances for three or four others. We’re in the process of signing deals with two companies in St. Petersburg. One has to do with transportation. Another is a technology company.
DAN WHELDON excerpt: “In terms of being recognized in St. Petersburg, it tends to happen more and more. I think we get pretty good press coverage in the area because St. Petersburg has an Indy 500 winner and IRL champion living in the area.”
MR: Any particular memories of the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that stand out?
WHELDON: I had just moved back in January 2005. As the race weekend progressed, more and more people realized I lived in St. Petersburg. And it was great to deliver them a victory.
Now the expectations are really high for this year. I’ve never, outside of Europe, had a home race. But by the end of that weekend I realized I had a lot of home support.
MR: Was it difficult changing teams after having so much success last year with Andretti Green Racing?
WHELDON: No. Times change. It was a great relationship that I had for three years. Target Chip Ganassi’s team history speaks for itself. They’ve won numerous championships, including nine Indy 500s. I want to win. To be on a different team motivates me very highly.
MR: What were your expectations going into the Indianapolis 500, having just won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg?
WHELDON: It was our fifth race of the season series. I’d won three of the past four; we were on a streak. When you have that, it’s important to maintain your focus. If you get too big for your britches, many people will bring you down. Indy was a race I dreamed of winning. We had the equipment and momentum to win. We focused on our own thing; we were going all out to win that race.
Afterward, it was just amazing. It’s the biggest race in the world, the most highly attended race in the world. It was pretty emotional.
MR: How did winning at Indy change your life?
WHELDON: I don’t think it did, from a personal level. I got a lot of self-satisfaction. People around me were proud. You do get recognized more; I think you get more respect.
MR: Did you buy yourself anything special with some of your winnings?
WHELDON: Well, I just finished furnishing the house in St. Petersburg. I could get more stuff at one time than I originally planned!