“I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life” – How Dan Wheldon won the 2005 Indy 500
This story ran in the IndyCar Series magazine that the RACER group produced for IndyCar in 2005. I did these interviews a few days after Dan Wheldon’s first Indy 500 win, when the dust had settled, the guys had had time for the news to sink in, the TV and press had left them alone, and they had absorbed the experience. It is a wonderful blow-by-blow record of the whole event, and, I believe, a fitting tribute to great guy.
Photographer Tony Di Zinno, dizinno.co.uk did an amazing session with Dan the morning after the win, as you can see with the pictures here. Like many, many others in our industry, Tony has found it hard coming to terms with the passing of Dan, and has shed tears searching these photos out, just as I have presenting this story.
Tony and I did a few photo shoots with Dan, and every time he was gracious, sporting, laughed, gave us time and above all trusted us with some of the stupid ideas we had for pictures. Enjoy the words (and there are many), and especially the pictures. Also a huge thanks to Laurence Foster at RACER, www.racer.com, (as he is the one that comes up with the really, really stupid photo ideas!), Tim Wright and Michael Levitt plus his team at LAT USA, for the action photos from Indy 2005, latphoto.co.uk/
The euphoria’s subsided and the milk’s been drunk. Now Dan Wheldon and the key men behind his 2005 Indy 500 triumph tell the story of his incredible climb through the field to victory.
Words by Andy Hallbery Portraits by Tony Di Zinno
As Dan Wheldon poured the milk over himself in Indy’s Victory Lane, the impact of what he’d achieved in winning the 89th Indianapolis 500 had already started to sink in. Only minutes after the chequered flag he had climbed from the cockpit of his Andretti Green Racing Dallara-Honda surrounded by camera crews and photographers, already reduced to tears. The first time, he said, he’s ever cried in a race car.
Then, in a symbolic gesture, he handed the milk to his team co-owner Michael Andretti, who, as a driver, came close but never did win in 14 attempts. Andretti wasn’t sure what to do. Did etiquette allow a team boss to sup the milk? What the heck, he decided, and took a big celebratory gulp. “It’s the sweetest milk I’ve ever tasted,” beamed Michael.
To get to Victory Lane, Wheldon and the crew worked hard through the ups and downs all month. Here is the rollercoaster story in the words of the men at the centre of it all, as they look back on how Wheldon’s day unfolded over 200 laps, as he came from 16th on the grid to win the biggest race in the world.
Wheldon’s qualifying run to 16th was disappointing, compounded by the fact that two of his AGR team-mates were quick: Tony Kanaan on pole, Dario Franchitti in sixth.
Eddie Jones: (Wheldon’s race engineer): We got it wrong on our first qualifying attempt. But we improved the car and got the speed in the afternoon, but there wasn’t enough time to get our run in. That was disappointing.
Dan Wheldon: I let the team know how I felt afterwards! I was frustrated. Michael Andretti asked: “Does the car feel good?” I said “Yes, but it’s slow.” He said, “Then don’t worry. You don’t need to have the fastest car to win this race.” And I hate to admit it, but he was right.
A bright, sunny day greeted the 33 drivers on May 29. Wheldon had been third on Carb Day, and again felt he had a good race car.
Wheldon: In a strange way, qualifying in 16th was a blessing in disguise, because it made me work on the car. After I calmed down, we just got on with it, and I got the most comfortable car I’d ever had in traffic. And I was very, very calm.
John Anderson (AGR team manager and Wheldon’s race car chief): Dan’s blood pressure was coming up, but he also knew we’d be OK if he stayed out of trouble. Starting 16th was just something he had to deal with.
Green flag. Wheldon loses two places on the first lap and is 18th, as Kanaan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Franchitti set a frenetic pace out at the front. Wheldon progresses, slowly but surely… rising to 14th by Lap 18.
Jones: I felt good just a few laps into the race. Dan is a guy that wants to make up six or eight places on the opening lap, and that didn’t happen. But he settled into the race and began picking them off one by one. My feeling early on was that if we could have a mistake-free race, we would be near the front by the end.
The whole field makes its first pit stops under yellow. The #26 crew makes minor changes to the tyre pressures, and Wheldon beats three other cars out to emerge 11th. Seven laps later, he passes Tomas Enge and hits the top 10 for the first time. His inexorable rise is happening, but the midfield is still treacherous.
Wheldon: There were some close shaves. One time I was behind another car – I can’t remember who it was – and it got understeer between Turns Three and Four, and so did I. I thought it was gone, to the point I pulled my legs back, because I thought I was going to hit the wall. Somehow I managed to save it.
Wheldon exchanges places with Bruno Junqueira and Vitor Meira for 20 laps, but even when he loses out and drops back to 10th he is still the model of patience. The leaders, Kanaan, Hornish and Franchitti are continuing to lap quickly, but in Wheldon’s pit the key men are calm.
Anderson: I was a little concerned at the pace at the front, while Dan was still back in traffic. But that’s when patience comes in, and I was very impressed with Dan.
From lap 48, Wheldon begins making inroads towards the top five. That lap he passes Helio Castroneves. Two laps later he is by Meira and then picks off Scott Sharp on the next to take seventh place.
Jones: Whatever is required at any time, be it pace, composure, or speed. Dan’s able to give us it. And that part of the event was the time for pace. Dan’s skill in doing that was a big component to winning the race.
Wheldon pits under green for his second stop along with the rest of the front-runners. Rapid pitwork, including another tyre pressure change, gets him out ahead of Junqueira and Buddy Lazier. He emerges fifth, and his stealthy but safe rise from the midfield is complete.
Jones: There’s no doubt Tony, Dario and Sam were extremely competitive at the front, but our progress was steady, relentless, and inevitable. I knew when we got Dan into the top five we had a real shot at the win.
Wheldon runs fifth until the next round of pit stops during another yellow on lap 79. This time Wheldon’s crew adds more front wing. As it turned out, the wing change wasn’t the right one, but Wheldon hovers in sixth and fifth, trading places for the next 27 laps with Meira.
Anderson: It’s not a gamble changing a car in a race as long as this, more of a good opportunity. The track conditions were changing and we could chase that with our changes.
Another yellow, and a perfect time for the whole field to pit. Wheldon’s crew takes out the wing change, and he returns to the track in sixth behind Meira and Sharp. Still, the leading trio is now within striking distance.
Anderson: Our big concern was Hornish, who was swapping the lead with Tony and Dario. But we felt Sam needed to keep himself out of traffic as much as possible. If he had a car as comfortable as ours, he’d have been in the draft.
The changes transform Wheldon’s car. On lap 127 he’s past Sharp, a lap later he is by Meira, and five laps on he’s past Hornish to move into the top three for the first time. He’s behind Kanaan and Franchitti, making it an Andretti Green 1-2-3.
Kim Green (AGR team co-owner): Dan did a great job using the tools in the race car – his roll bars, his weight-jacker – to help set up his car each time to pass the cars he was racing against.
A key turning point. As suspected by Anderson, Hornish struggles in traffic and on lap 146 he crashes out. All the leaders pit three laps later and Wheldon’s crew excels again. The Briton emerges first ahead of Meira and Franchitti – three quarters of the way through the race and he’s made it to the front.
Green: A good thing for Dan was that he had a very clear pit entry. Dario and Tony struggled – especially in the last few pit stops – getting around another car to get in or out of the box. Dan hit his marks every time and got great track position.
When they’re back to green on lap 162, Meira passes Wheldon, but three laps later Wheldon is back in front. This duo now looks to be the most threatening for the win, while Kanaan is struggling down in seventh with a vibration. In the lead, Wheldon looks strong on his own.
Wheldon: The car was handling well in traffic, but it was also quick on its own. So I was able to take advantage of the opportunity.
Another yellow alters the order. All the leaders pit for their final fuel stop, except Danica Patrick and Wheldon’s third team mate Bryan Herta. Crucially, Wheldon’s crew decides to change all four tyres – the only team to do so.
Jones: We calculated that, with 28 laps to go, the amount of fuel we needed would give us enough time to get four tyres. Danica and Bryan stayed out, so there was nothing we could do about them. We lost a few more spots in the pits, and came out sixth behind Meira, Bourdais and Franchitti. But we had fresh rubber, and that was all that mattered.
Michael Andretti (AGR co-owner): It was a good strategy. They gave up track position, but I knew it would pay off. It made the difference.
Green: Bryan and Danica stayed out gambling on a fuel mileage based on two more yellows, and they got them! Certainly for Bryan, fuel wasn’t actually an issue at the end.
On the restart, Bourdais and Franchitti delay each other and Wheldon crucially is straight up to fourth behind Meira – and with a tyre advantage.
Anderson: Danica and Bryan just went with fuel, no tyres. And I was very comfortable with the fact that, during the sprint to the finish, we were going with a good set of rubber on.
With four fresh tyres, Wheldon is on the move. He is fourth and then passes Meira. Six tours later, he’s made it past Herta… Only crowd favourite Danica Patrick to go.
Green: It was obvious to me that Dan was faster than Bryan, who had a touch more downforce on his car. Bryan realised Dan was faster, and certainly didn’t get in his way.
Wheldon gets a run on Patrick and gets underneath her exiting Turn Four to edge into the lead. At that moment the yellow flag waves after Kosuke Matsuura hits the wall. Wheldon is leading by inches as they cross the line. Wheldon is now first for the restart.
Andretti: I would rather have had Dan second on the restart. We pretty much knew he was going to get passed. But we knew he would be stronger because Danica had older tyres.
With 10 to go Patrick drafts Wheldon over the line at the restart and moves back into the lead. Despite his tyre advantage, Wheldon still has to muster everything he has.
Wheldon: I knew I could pass her, it was just a case of timing. But having just done it she was aware of where I was good, so she made it a bit more difficult.
After a few aborted attempts into Turn Three, Wheldon makes the final pass for the lead into Turn One. He then makes a small break as she fends off her team mate Meira.
Andretti: Meira had a strong car as well. I was worried about it. When he had a problem getting past Danica, giving Dan a gap, I felt a little bit easier. And Bryan was all over Meira too, and that helped slow Meira down.
Meira passes Patrick for second, but half a lap later, before he can challenge Wheldon, Bourdais hits the wall, and the yellow flies. Wheldon simply has to cruise the final two laps to complete a remarkable Indy 500 triumph.
Wheldon: It was such a proud moment for me, the proudest of my life. Michael and my team mates were a big part of the win, and there are lots of people who helped me get there. But Kim Green’s a special one – he took a flyer on me.
I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life.
Video: Go to the 5 minute 40 mark to see Dans victory lane celebrations and interview