IndyCar season opener tribute to Dan Wheldon

Wheldon remembered as IndyCar season starts under his sister's starting orders

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UPDATED:

20:43 GMT, 25 March 2012

The friends and rivals in IndyCar whom Dan Wheldon left behind raced along the road that now bears his name, honouring his memory with every sharp brake and acceleration around Turn 10 of the Streets of St Petersburg course.

They raced barely two miles from where he used to call home, in new cars now known from his initials as the DW12, having been started by his younger sister Holly waving the green flag. This had followed a video tribute and prolonged applause for the Buckinghamshire-born driver.

As the IndyCar series restarted its engines for 2012 last night there was not just anticipation of the new season, but plenty of poignant reflection on the events of last October 16, when Wheldon was killed in the final race of 2011 in Las Vegas.

Remembered: Helio Castroneves rushed to the Dan Wheldon Way sign after winning the IndyCar opener

Remembered: Helio Castroneves rushed to the Dan Wheldon Way sign after winning the IndyCar opener

Remembered: Helio Castroneves rushed to the Dan Wheldon Way sign after winning the IndyCar opener

An infinitely happier memory will be
of Turn 10 on this street circuit halfway up Florida’s Gulf coast. It
was at the very same point in 2005 that Wheldon made his move to win
this particular race. It is also where a permanent monument dedicated to
him will soon be erected by the side of what earlier this month was
inaugurated as Dan Wheldon Way.

Brazilian Helio Castroneves drove up
it 100 times last night and after crossing the finish line as winner,
stopped his victory lap where the road sign hangs on a fence.

There he climbed the wall and slapped
it repeatedly, overcome with emotion. ‘I was thinking of our friend
upstairs,’ he said later.

Victory: Brazilian Castroneves produced a stunning performance on an emotionally-charged day

Victory: Brazilian Castroneves produced a stunning performance on an emotionally-charged day

Wheldon’s widow Susie was there for
the inauguration ceremony although this weekend she chose to be away
from the family’s waterfront home in the nearby upmarket suburb of Snell
Isle, to where the intense whine of the engines can carry.

Her late husband, 33 when he died,
was held in enormously high regard by his peers and by American
motorsport’s millions of fans. While the charismatic Wheldon gained more
fame posthumously in his own country, in life he was a well-established
star on this side of the Atlantic.

Presence: Wheldon's sister Holly waved the green flag for the start of the race St Petersburg

Presence: Wheldon's sister Holly waved the green flag for the start of the race St Petersburg

Monte Carlo-esque: The race was held in Florida, the adopted home of Wheldon

Monte Carlo-esque: The race was held in Florida, the adopted home of Wheldon

Some of those fans yesterday wore
ribbons of orange, the predominant colour of the car he used to win the
famed Indy 500 last year — an achievement matched by his friend and
fellow Brit, reigning Series champion Dario Franchitti.

The 38-year-old Scot was more
affected by the tragedy in Las Vegas than most. Far from celebrating
last season’s IndyCar championship, he wanted to get away from racing
after the accident which killed Wheldon — thrown against a fence post
after a high-speed collision.

Memories: Wheldon died in October

Memories: Wheldon died in October

‘It was too raw,’ said Franchitti,
who finished 13th yesterday. ‘I asked myself many times if I still
wanted to do this and eventually decided that I did.’

Sunday began on a sombre note with a
religious service held early in the morning, attended by various members
of the teams. Prayers were said for Wheldon, but the service is a
regular feature on race days.

It would be easy to paint this as
part of a social conservatism running through a sport associated with
the American south. In fact the scene is almost Monte Carlo-esque, with a
backdrop of palm trees and large yachts in the marina.

It is the bitterest of ironies that
Wheldon spent much of his final season testing the car that made its
debut yesterday, designed to try to prevent tragedy.

He died driving in the final race in which the old design — which went back nearly 10 years — was used.

The latest edition has an enhanced
safety cell in which the drivers sit and the wings and bumpers have been
extended to try to stop the danger of cars riding over each other.

Wheldon always hosted a post-race
party in this town and, with the blessing of his family, the same event
went ahead last night. It promised to be a bittersweet occasion indeed.