Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011 - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011

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Wheldon in 2003 Wheldon in 2003

INDIANAPOLIS - Eyewitness Sports looks back at the life and career of Dan Wheldon, the 33-year-old IndyCar driver killed in a crash at the Las Vegas Motorspeedway Sunday.

Dan Wheldon was first introduced to Indianapolis in 2003.

Wheldon did not finish his first Indy 500 after a spectacular crash sent him airborne and upside down. He walked away from that wreck.

"I think it was a lot worse from the actual spectator standpoint. It wasn't too bad," he said at the time. "You know you're gonna get some accidents on the oval but it really wasn't that bad at all."

In 2004, Wheldon got his first victory in Japan. But he truly broke onto the IndyCar scene in 2005 at the Indianapolis 500.

With seven laps to go, Wheldon passed then-rookie Danica Patrick, and after a late-race wreck, he was still in the lead when the yellow flag flew.

His personality was on display a week later in Texas when he wore a T-shirt that said, "Actually 'won' the Indy 500."

Danica Patrick was getting all the attention for her 500 performance. Wheldon not-so-subtlely reminded people who actually won the race.

Wheldon went on to win six races and his only IndyCar title.

In June 2008 on his 30th birthday, Wheldon won in Iowa and promptly donated his winnings to help victims of the tornado and flooding catastrophe.

2009 brought back to back heartbreakers at Indy. Two years in a row, Wheldon would finish second in the Indy 500.

In 2011, he returned to Indy for an unforgettable finish. Racing in his first event of the year in friend Bryan Herta's small team, the Englishman watched as rookie JR Hildebrand wrecked ahead of him. Wheldon zoomed to the checkered flag, winning Indy a second time and joining an elite class of multiple winners.

"It's just gratifying to know that I've still got it. Incredibly proud. To do it in front of such a great fan base, is phenomenal. I love the state of Indiana. I love Indianapolis. This is extremely emotional for me. I'm absolutely worn out. I gave it everything I had. For us to be able to do this is really, really special," he said at the time.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Track Historian Donald Davidson adds: "He was the best voice the track has ever had. I don't remember another current driver who could talk it up so much. He'd been doing that for years. Every interview, he'd say the Indianapolis 500 is the greatest race in the world."

While Wheldon drank the milk twice in Indianapolis, Davidson reminded us Wheldon came very close to winning the 500 several other times.

"He's also had two seconds and third, so in the last eight years, he finished in the top three five times, including the last three years with a second, second and a first. So he's one of 18 people to win the race twice. He's up there near the top in terms of accomplishments."

Davidson said Wheldon was a part of the community because he once lived in Carmel and enjoyed talking with fans.

"He went out of his way to talk to people, not just to sign autographs but go over and get to know the fans on an individual basis."

Wheldon was racing in Las Vegas because of a special opportunity. If he raced from the back of the pack to victory, he was due to split a $5 million bonus with a fan.

He was beloved by drivers for his competitiveness and his fun-loving charisma. Wheldon was often the victim or perpetrator of practical jokes.

Wheldon leaves behind wife Suzie and sons Sebastian and newborn Oliver.

Dan Wheldon was 33 years old.

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