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Remembering Dan Wheldon

Nick Laham/Getty Images

There's a lot of emotion attached to this weekend's Indianapolis 500. It could hardly be otherwise, given that it's the 100th running of this classic in one the world's great theatres of motor sport, a place that knows how to pull the heart strings of even the most ambivalent member of the sell-out crowd.

The sentiment comes in several strands. One of the most recent has been the winning of pole position by James Hinchcliffe one year on from suffering a life-threatening injury during practice for the 2015 race. If he pulls it off on Sunday, then expect the Canadian to look for one particular image among the past winners portrayed on the magnificent Borg-Warner Trophy.

They're all there: Clark, Foyt, Andretti, Mears, Fittipaldi, Montoya, and Franchitti among a veritable gallery of the greats. But Hinchcliffe is likely to seek out the face of Dan Wheldon, the Englishman whose proposed place at Andretti Autosport Hinchcliffe felt honoured to take after Wheldon's fatal accident at Las Vegas in 2011. Hinchcliffe may have since moved on to Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, but there would be personal satisfaction and a sentimental symmetry in having his bearded profile on the same trophy.

Wheldon appears twice after winning in 2005 and 2011. Inbetween, he had experienced the vagaries of this sport by being out of a full-time drive in 2011, only to come back to Indy and stick two metaphorical fingers up to those who questioned an undeniable talent. That win at the Brickyard is sandwiched between a double for Dario Franchitti; an appropriate piece of positioning since a close friendship between these two overcame occasional controversy on the track.

All of this is explained in 'Lionheart', a touching combination of photographic images and memories from more than 50 of Wheldon's family, friends and fellow competitors. By all accounts, Wheldon was a feisty guy; cocky and quick. But the indisputable fact leaping from the pages is that he was a devoted family man, deeply respected and universally liked despite, or perhaps because of, a cheeky sense of self-awareness and a clever cultivation of his image.

Frequent mention is made of Wheldon's colourful driving boots and an equally striking array of gleaming teeth. The sudden extensive dental work caught the attention of everyone; not least Franchitti who, in 2008, had switched to NASCAR with Ganassi.

"Dan shows up at the NASCAR race at Homestead and I'm getting ready for the race start - I was probably at the back of the grid anyway - and there's a commotion," recalls Franchitti. "It was like he'd been dropped from another plant, because there's all these NASCAR guys who are in jeans and whatever. Then this kind of 'Metro Sexual' shows up with his tight outfit and I thought, 'That kind of looks like Dan,' but not really, because he had these teeth; these huge chompers.

"I'm looking at him coming towards me and all I think to say to him was, 'Did it hurt?'. And he goes, 'Yeah, it did kinda.' The race starts and I'm just thinking of those teeth. I'm normally pretty good at focussing, but my head is just, 'My God, what was he thinking?' I couldn't get it out of my head and I crashed. So Dan's teeth cost Chip [Ganassi] a lot of money! Thinking about it, they cost Dan a lot of money, too!"

The story, told with great affection, is one of many anecdotes stretching from his UK karting with Anthony Davidson and Jenson Button -- "The aim [in karting]," says Jenson "was to try to beat Dan Wheldon, or be as good as him" -- and on through Weldon's career in single-seaters in Europe and, ultimately, Indycar.

We came close to seeing that winning smile in F1 in 2006. Early negotiations with Mario Theissen were carried out in a fast food court as the boss of BMW-Sauber passed through Los Angeles airport. He was offered a test drive, with the proviso that it would become a race seat if Jacques Villeneuve moved on. Wanting to race, Wheldon declined. BMW-Sauber did eventually part company with Villeneuve, Robert Kubica taking the drive.

Had Wheldon returned to Europe, his face might have been on the Borg-Warner Trophy just once. That may have been enough in any driver's career narrative but the sad thing, as this book makes clear, is that he was on the verge of going beyond the double being remembered and celebrated this weekend.

'Lionheart. Remembering Dan Wheldon' by Andy Hallbery and Jeff Olson. Lionheart Books. (Part of the proceeds goes to the Wheldon Trust and the Alzheimer's Association).