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Brian Viner: My encounter with the hidden hero of British motorsport

"I love speed. But what drives me more than the speed is the competition"

Dan Wheldon was one of Britain's most successful sporting exports. Handsome, charming, eloquent, and twice a winner of the Indianapolis 500, he was the IndyCar pin-up who received two of the greatest benedictions that popular American culture can bestow: he was a guest on David Letterman's talk show, and threw the honorary opening pitch for the New York Yankees.

When I interviewed him near his home in Florida in 2007, two years after his first Indy 500 triumph, I asked after his pitching arm. He said it had gone well because he'd played cricket at school. That was Bedford School, which a few years later would produce the England batsman Alastair Cook. The rugby player Andy Gomarsall went there too. Both, at least until Sunday's tragic crash, were much more famous in this country than Wheldon. It is a deeply sad irony that only in death has he acquired the recognition in his own country that he deserved in life.

Had he taken his talents to Formula One, of course, the fame would have come. His idol as a boy – another irony – was the late Ayrton Senna, and Wheldon had his chances to join Formula One teams, but each time he opted to stay in America. He enjoyed being clutched to his adopted nation's bosom, not to mention the real thing, once cheerfully admitting that he preferred socialising in America because "it's easier to get laid".

His playboy years were over by the time of his death. He was the father of two young sons, so it sounds crass to venture that he died as he loved to live, at high speed. Nonetheless, it is true.

In 2007 he survived a terrifying smash that seemed almost to exhilarate him. "It took a few days for my internal organs to settle back into their original spot," he told me, adding, "I love speed. But what drives me more than the speed is the competition."

It was a combination of both that killed him, aged 33.