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.

News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower