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BILL DWYRE

Dan Wheldon will try to hit the jackpot in Las Vegas

The Indy 500 winner, in only his third race of the season, has a chance to split $5 million with a fan if he can pull off a last-to-first victory.

October 12, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Dan Wheldon will look to follow up his Indy 500 victory with a win Sunday at the IndyCar Series finale in Las Vegas.
Dan Wheldon will look to follow up his Indy 500 victory with a win Sunday at… (John Sommers / Reuters )

Two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon pretty much kept his foot off the gas this year.

He saw a lot of races, but from his living room couch. He shifted into high gear a couple of times, but mostly on the way to the grocery store.

Still, by the end of the IZOD IndyCar series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Wheldon's winnings for 2011 could surpass $5 million.

Wait till AARP hears about this. Try finding another pension plan like it.

This is a story about fame, fortune, promotional gimmicks and opportunity.

Wheldon won this year's Indianapolis 500, dominating the race for the last 912 feet. That brought him and his racing team $2.7 million. Then he didn't race again in an Indy car until Oct. 2 in Kentucky, where he finished 14th.

Sunday in Las Vegas, he will start 34th in a field of 34, even though he will try to qualify first and win the $10,000 that goes with the pole position. Las Vegas is the last race of the season. It will be Wheldon's third, and it will present him with a chance to win another $2.5 million.

None of that makes sense, of course, so we will try to untangle this, step by step.

Wheldon, 33, from England, has driven on the Indy circuit since 2002. He lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife and two sons. He has three brothers and a sister, none of whom has the slightest interest in driving anything at 200 miles an hour. His father started him in racing, and he began zipping around competitively in go-karts when he was 4 years old. He is still zipping.

"I love the go-karts," he says. "I get them up to around 90 on the straights."

Wheldon is no neophyte. He also won the Indy 500 in 2005, finished second in 2009 and '10, has started 133 times in Indy races and has won 16 times.

When he won the Indy 500 this year, it was not only among the more exciting finishes in race history, but among the more unexpected. Two months before the May 29 race, Wheldon was without a racing team and a ride at the Brickyard. He hadn't had a bad year in 2010, especially with his second-place at Indy and nine other top-10 finishes. But he had left one team and not found another.

Shortly before the March 27 race in St. Petersburg, he made a call to former racing partner Bryan Herta, asking for advice on how, and with whom, to get back in the action. Herta said he would find a car and get a team together for Wheldon to race at Indy.

"This business is about trust," Wheldon says, "and I trusted Bryan."

They found a car originally raced in 2003, painted it white and orange, put Parnelli Jones' No. 98 on it and Wheldon qualified it sixth. On race day, they stayed near the front and made the correct decision as to when to take on fuel near the end. By the final lap, Wheldon was 300 yards — about two finger snaps — behind leader J.R. Hildebrand, who was desperately trying to make it the final 2½ miles on diminishing fuel.

In the final turn, Hildebrand tried to go high around Charlie Kimball.

"He told me later," Wheldon says, "that he was worried that if he ducked low, he would have to come off the power and then accelerate again, which can suck your last gas away."

Hildebrand smashed the wall, and as he slid toward the finish line, Wheldon emerged from the dust of debris and sped past, taking over the lead just 912 feet from the legendary finish-line row of bricks.

The next day, they took pictures at that row of bricks of three cars — Wheldon's from this 100th Indy race, A.J. Foyt's winner from the 50th race in 1961, and the winner from the inaugural 1911 race. At one point, Wheldon leaned down and kissed the bricks. His 2-year-old son, Sebastian, sitting on the bricks next to him, did the same thing.

"No prompting," Wheldon says. "He just did it."

The next race was in Texas. Wheldon, still with no ride, sat it out. His car, under contract for use by driver Wade Cunningham, ended up in the wall, having crashed with — coincidentally — Charlie Kimball. The car is still in several pieces but will probably be restored eventually for museum duty.

Wheldon did a press tour, then went back to St. Petersburg and put the pedal to the metal mostly en route to the mall. He was not without offers to drive, but was without any he felt would be competitive.

Then came the gimmick.

Randy Bernard, IndyCar Series chief executive, offered to pay $5 million to any non-regular Indy car driver who would start last and finish first in the final IndyCar race of the year, at Las Vegas. There were several prospects, but none worked out until Bernard determined that Wheldon would fit the criteria.

The $5 million became $2.5 million for the driver and $2.5 million for a randomly selected fan who had registered through texting or a website. That fan is 51-year-old Ann Bavenco of High Bridge, N.J., who will be on hand and, presumably, root hard.

"She better," Wheldon says.

So, what are the odds of passing 33 cars, all going around 200 mph, in 300 miles on a 1½-mile track?

In 2004 in Richmond, Va., Wheldon started last in an Indy race and won. Now, he is much more rested.

Plus, this is Las Vegas.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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