Future looking brighter for Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon

Publish date:

Wheldon made the most of his lone IndyCar ride of 2011 at Indianapolis when he passed rookie JR Hildebrand on the final lap of the race after he crashed into the fourth turn wall. It was the only lap of the race that Wheldon led, but it was was enough to take the historic victory.

Not a bad showing for a driver with only a part-time gig.

"This is certainly more than I get at the unemployment line," Wheldon said Monday night. "I get more joy driving a race car around this track than anything else in the world. I'm unemployed. I'm unemployed. [Team owner] Bryan Herta is going to do everything in his power to keep me in the race car, but he is an astute business person. If he can't do it right, he's not going to do it at all."

The Emberton, England native joined an exclusive list of drivers who have won the Indy 500 more than once and collected $2,567,255 from an overall purse of $13,509,485 for his win at Monday night's Indianapolis 500 Victory Awards Celebration at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Indianapolis.

Driving for Bryan Herta -- who owns a full-time Firestone Indy Lights operation and hopes to become a full-time IZOD IndyCar participant in 2012 -- Wheldon's Indy 500 win was his first since 2008 and adds to a solid resume that includes six top-4 finishes in nine career Indianapolis starts.

"I don't know why people didn't know [about his talent] already, just look at what he's done at Indianapolis," Herta said. "I think any team would be lucky to have him in a car. We'd be lucky to keep him in the car."

Though Wheldon was only slated to drive at Indianapolis in a one-race deal with the team, Herta has been contacted by several potential sponsors in fielding an effort in a few more races this season.

"I think there could be some opportunities created for us to continue," Herta said. "I'm sure that Dan will get some opportunities, and my hope is we'll be able to work together later this year."

The 32-year-old Wheldon remains a competitive race driver and is anxious to return to full-time status.

"I have to evaluate all of my options right now because I don't have a contract," Wheldon said. "I'd like to stay in IndyCars and try to win another Indianapolis 500. I feel I have some more left in me. When you get with a program it's difficult to find people in the paddock that are truly honest and will do everything in their power to give you everything you need. Bryan has given me that and more. When I spoke to him and he told me that he would give me a competitive race car he freaked out when he hung up the phone because that added a lot of pressure to him. I could tell on the first day. They were very nervous on the team. They had a tough time with Sebastian Saavedra last year. It's not a reflection on his talent. It was difficult on him. It was a one-car team. He came in as a rookie and it was Bryan's first go-round. They were nervous to a degree."

Herta and Wheldon were teammates at what is now Andretti Autosport from 2003-2005 and formed a strong bond. But Wheldon insists he got the ride based on performance, not friendship.

"One of the engineers came up to me and said after day two, 'Thank you for making us believe we can do this,'" Wheldon recalled. "I said, 'I'm not doing anything.' The speed in the car was a testament to them. They did a good job. I had a lot of fun and we'll have to see where this takes us. I don't think it hurt our chances.

"All I asked from Bryan was a fast race car and that is what he gave me. This brought me back to life again. It is the best race in the world to win."

Wheldon drove a solid race and placed himself in position to run near the front at the end of the race. But when it looked like Hildebrand would become the first rookie winner of the Indy 500 since Helio Castroneves in 2001, it all changed.

Hildebrand tried to get around fellow rookie Charlie Kimball, who took the inside line as he was running out of fuel in Turn 4. Kimball appeared to give Hildebrand plenty of room, but Hildebrand's tires lost grip in the outside lane and smacked the wall. Despite losing the Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand would be credited with a second-place finish and collected $1,064,895 Monday night. He was also named the Chase Bank Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.

Wheldon, meanwhile, was more focused on a battle of his own.

"The last lap, I was catching Ana Beatriz and I didn't want to lift," Wheldon said. "When I came out of Turn 4, I was just focused on clearing her, and then I saw, just then, that he had hit the wall. I wanted to make sure I didn't hit any debris. I was just very surprised [Hildebrand] went that high."

Wheldon was overwhelmed with emotion when he made it to Victory Lane. But the morning after the victory, he spoke of the significance of winning the 100th Anniversary of the "World's Greatest Race."

"I value the history and tradition of this race track a lot," Wheldon said. "That is what makes this race so special. I'm not the 100th winner, but the winner of the 100th Anniversary and a two-time winner. To win such a special race is going to be one that certainly, down the road, will mean an immense amount. When I have the ability to explain to my sons what happened, it will be very, very cool."

Unfortunately, the IndyCar Series won't be able to capitalize on the momentum of this year's dramatic Indy 500, facing an open week before a trip to Fort Worth, Texas.

And for the first time since Castroneves won the Indy 500 as a rookie, the winner of the "World's Biggest Race" will not be in the lineup -- at least for now -- for the other races on the series schedule.

For the other tracks on the schedule it is important to the have the Indy 500 winner in their events. Not only does it help sell tickets, it generates interest for tracks, be it Texas Motor Speedway, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course or Las Vegas, where the IndyCar Series will have its season finale.

The series would receive a big boost if Wheldon can return to full-time status. And after his victory on Sunday with Herta, there appears to be renewed interest in having this duo together again, at least a few more times in 2011.

That would be the best thing for the sport because Wheldon proved on Sunday that he remains an IndyCar star, even if he has been relegated to part-time status.

"I love IndyCar racing," Wheldon said. "And I believe I deserve to be a part of it."