Michael Andretti provides path for Wheldon boys

By Brant James

The image is poignant a decade later.

Dan Wheldon, the former IndyCar champion, having just become a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, cradling his toddler son, Sebastian, while his wife, Susie, holds newborn Oliver at the yard of bricks. Dan Wheldon, as usual, beaming.

Dan, Susie, Oliver & Sebastian Wheldon pose with the Borg-Warner Trophy the day after Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

On that May afternoon in Indianapolis, the charismatic Brit, who’d grown from a sometimes brash but always charismatic upstart to the doting family man, had taken advantage of a late mistake by JR Hildebrand to win open-wheel racing’s most significant event in a darkhorse Bryan Herta/Curb Agajanian entry. 

Dan Wheldon celebrates his 2011 Indianapolis 500 win (Photo Courtesy of LAT Photo USA /Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

He would race just one more time that season before going to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the season’s final race. That weekend, he would sign a deal to rejoin the Andretti Autosport team that launched his career in North America. The next hard-earned phase for the new Dan Wheldon was about to begin at 33.

Wheldon died after being involved in a multi-car crash on Lap 13 at Las Vegas, leaving pictures instead of memories for boys who were so young.

The Wheldon’s took a new picture on Saturday at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, at the course where Dan won the first installment in 2005, and in the city where the family still lives all these years later.

There was Sebastian, 12, and Oliver, 10, and Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti in front of the plaque commemorating Wheldon’s life and career near Turn 10 as the boys were brought into the fold through a mentorship program.

The goal: to eventually put them back on the Yard of Bricks with their own Borg-Warner Trophy.

The plan: The Wheldon’s will brandish Andretti marks in the Rok Cup USA, Super Karts USA, and the United States Pro Kart Series with JC Karting and extensive support from an Andretti program with a history of developing talent.

Andretti, who saw Wheldon claim the first nine of his 16 career wins, and the 2005 title and Indianapolis 500 with his team before leaving for Ganassi Racing in 2006, said it was incomprehensible ten years had passed, even with the boys – themselves national-level winners – standing there as proof.

“It seems like it was just yesterday,” said the team owner.

Sebastian began racing at age 5, two years before Oliver finally asked to try. Sebastian’s leading of the field to green in media/celebrity races preceding the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over the years had long been a hint at where this could be going.

Susie Wheldon has sacrificed to make this come true for her boys. She’s not remarried, so the job was her’s alone despite valuable help from the IndyCar community, including Scott Dixon, Andretti, and Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, who also lives in St. Petersburg. She’s gone from a mother indulging a child in a passion to learning another side of the game that her previous roles as a media relations rep and wife of a driver couldn’t illuminate.

She closed the niche clothing boutique she opened in St. Petersburg in 2017 because her sons’ travel, racing, and online school became too time-consuming.

“That girl has really given up her life for her kids,” Andretti said. “I love what she’s doing.”

Once the boys advanced to national-series racing with success – they’re back to New Castle, Ind., on Wednesday to prep for another event – the mother conferred with her husband’s former manager, Adrian Sussman, to formulate a strategy to bring on more help. She and Andretti began working on the eventual deal eight months ago. Initial plans will have the boys remain in Florida to further their kart careers as the minimum age to enter the Road to Indy Series is 14.

Susie Wheldon wish son Sebastian good luck Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR – James Black)

Drivers aren’t often comfortable reconciling their mortality against the dangerous job they chose and the families that can only be supportive. But a grieving IndyCar community enveloped Susie Wheldon in the years after her husband’s death, and Sebastian and Oliver found mentors and unofficial uncles throughout the paddock.

Dan Wheldon often joked about how quickly he would get Sebastian into a go-kart. He could only stand it for 18 months, taking laps with his boy at Andersen RacePark South of St. Petersburg. 

Sebastian’s first ride of his own came at age 4½ when Top Kart gave him one as a gift. His first ride alone was at the same track where his father had shown him the thrill of it all.

Through this journey, Susie Wheldon said she remains realistic. “I’m not naive enough to think that just because they’re Dan Wheldon’s kids, they’re going to be great race car drivers,” she said.

Sebastian bears a strong resemblance to his mother; Oliver looks more like his father. Both already exhibit the type of poise that allows children to undertake a media session at a professional auto race with hardly a bobble. The polish required to charm sponsors and woo media is already developing after just a few years slogging around the high-level kart circuits in the Southeast and Midwest.

The more interesting stuff – the budding Wheldon joy of conversation – bubbles out when they recall racing each other.

“Not good,” Oliver said of his experience battling big brother. “There was one race in Orlando when I was winning, and he tried to pass me and put me in the grass, and I didn’t win the championship because of that.” Sebastian quickly interjected, “But the next race, we helped each other.”

Sebastian’s only brief stumble came when enunciating the source of the talent. “I think it all comes from our blood ……. and it helps us be better drivers,” he said.

And their favorite memory from watching a video of their father’s races?

“I think it was in the Indy 500; I think it was 2005 when he won it,” Oliver said. And Sebastian? “My favorite was when he won the one in 2011. He never gave up, and he won.”

Susie Wheldon undoubtedly understands that bad things can happen to loved ones in race cars. But still, they push on.

“Obviously, that thought is there,” she said. “But it’s not something I dwell on or think about a lot. Everything has kind of happened naturally, and I’ve just kind of kept going with it. I can’t deny them that.

“I would not want them to come to me when they’re 16 or 17 and say, ‘Mom, I want to have a go,’ and it’s too late.

“If they came to me in two, three, five years and said ‘This is not what we want to do,’ OK, we can walk away knowing this is something we tried.”

As a member of a multi-generation racing family, Andretti appreciates the quest. His 7-year-old son Rio, as in “Mario,” is currently racing karts, too. Susie Wheldon values “the passing down of the baton that runs deep in racing.” And in the Wheldon boys. 

“He was a good driver,” Sebastian said of his father. “And I want to be a little bit better than him.”

Today, as his mother said, “We found the path.”

Susie, Sebastian, and Oliver Wheldon with Michael Andretti in front of the Dan Wheldon memorial in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR – Chris Owens)