Dan Wheldon, who was killed at the age of 33 in a 15-car pile-up at the Las Vegas Speedway on Sunday, moved to the United States from England with the aim of winning the Indianapolis 500. He realised that ambition twice over, and became in the process one of the best-liked drivers in the paddock.
Born in Emberton in Buckinghamshire, Wheldon got into his first vehicle, a go-kart, at the age of four, and went on to win eight national titles, while attending the private Bedford School. Moving up to cars, he left for the US in 1999 in search of sponsorship, and by 2002, after serving time in series such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights, he had made it to the IndyCar grid, taking two drives that season with the Panther Racing team. The following year he replaced the retiring Michael Andretti at Andretti Green Racing, winning the Rookie of the Year award.
His first victory came the next season, in Japan, and he finished second in the Indycar championship behind his team-mate Tony Kanaan. The next year, 2005, he was champion, as well as becoming the first British driver since Jim Clark in 1965 and Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Indianapolis 500. Teams from NASCAR – stock car racing – talked to him about moving, and there was interest from Formula One teams, but he decided to stick with IndyCar.
Though the his Indy 500 victory made Wheldon's name, the rookie driver Danica Patrick stole his thunder, after Wheldon had passed her with fewer than 10 laps to go. He good-naturedly poked fun at what quickly became known as "Danicamania", posing in a T-shirt bearing the legend "Actually 'Won' The Indy 500". Wheldon did enjoy his share of the limelight, though, throwing out the first pitch at a New York Yankees baseball game and appearing on Late Show with David Letterman.
He won again earlier this year in unexpected fashion, when JR Hildebrand was leading until he hit the wall on the final turn of the race. As the American rookie's wrecked car slid down the track, Wheldon slipped by in the final few hundred yards to take the victory.
Despite becoming one of a select group – 18 drivers have won the Indy 500 more than once in its 100-year history – as well as finishing in the Indycar top 10 every year from 2004 until 2010, winning 16 races, Wheldon had been having trouble finding a drive: Sunday's race was only his third of the season. Lacking financial backing, he kept busy by working as a commentator and testing prototypes. IndyCar will have new cars next year, with many of the changes focussed on safety. It had been a recent passion of Wheldon, who joked that he was now a "test dummy".
He credited his wife for helping him through a difficult period: "She understands that this is all I've ever done ... She knows that racing creates the personality in me that she loves. So she was desperate to get me back out the house and in a race car."
Wheldon had indeed found a way back in to full-time driving: after Sunday's race he had been due to sign for Michael Andretti's team, replacing Patrick, who is switching to NASCAR. "Back when he was with the team in '05, we referred to the team as 'The Beatles' because it was such perfect harmony," Andretti's chief marketing officer John Lopes said, "and with Dan coming back, there was talk of putting The Beatles back together."
Away from the track, Wheldon raised money for charities, was a spokesman for the National Guard and most recently was raising money for research into Alzheimer's after his mother was diagnosed with the disease. Last year he published a book of photographs, Lionheart, a coffee table book he had spent years editing, including dozens of photos of his life away from the track.
Wheldon said after this year's surprise Indy 500 victory, "That's Indianapolis. That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what's going to happen." That was certainly true on Sunday, when Wheldon started last in the 34-car field – victory would have seen him win a $5m prize offered to a non-regular driver who wins from the back – and moved up quickly to 24th. He was well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the 13th lap but had no way of avoiding the wreckage. Travelling close to 200mph, his car sailed into the fence extending over the track barrier. He was taken by helicopter to hospital, but his death was announced two hours later.
Daniel Clive Wheldon, racing driver: born Emberton, Buckinghamshire 22 June 1978; married 2008 Susie Behm (two sons); died Las Vegas 16 October 2011.