By Jamal Thalji, Times Staff Writer
Posted: Oct 22, 2011 01:50 PM
ST. PETERSBURG — The legend of Dan Wheldon already has been writ large: the British prodigy who couldn't break into Formula 1 but won two Indy 500s, the St. Pete Grand Prix and the affections of his adopted hometown. The story ended at age 33 when he died doing what he did best: racing some of the world's fastest cars.
When his family and friends gathered Saturday with the IndyCar elite to say goodbye to Wheldon, they opened the doors to the public.
Then they opened up about the Wheldon they knew.
The dashing, confident Brit. The cool guy with the quick wit. The clean freak. The son and brother, the husband and father who enjoyed his children, a good cup of tea and staying up late cleaning with his fellow neatnik, his sister Holly.
She wrote a letter to her brother, then held IndyCar driver Scott Dixon's hand as he read it aloud at the service.
"We are here because of what happened on a race track," her letter said. "But my brother was born to race. Dan without racing was like a cup of tea without milk. And Dan loved his tea."
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Dan Wheldon started racing at age 4 and became a phenom. He dreamed of becoming a Formula 1 driver. But it required money that his family did not have.
So in 1999 he came to America, and St. Petersburg, to chase fame and fortune. He had earned it by 2005, when he won his first Indianapolis 500. That year he won six races total — and the inaugural St. Pete Grand Prix — on his way to the series championship.
He also became a celebrity. But in his new hometown he was more of a fixture, trading a Gandy Boulevard apartment for a posh Snell Isle home.
"I think for the city and a race car driver it was love at first sight," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster told the funeral crowd.
Wheldon burnished his resume with a second Indy 500 win in May, taking the flag on the last lap. He again sipped milk in the winners circle and dedicated the race to his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's.
He died Oct. 16. A massive pile-up on the 11th lap sent his car airborne at the series finale in Las Vegas.
Many of Wheldon's neighbors and fans lined up outside First Presbyterian Church to pay their respects Saturday. More than 1,200 attended the service.
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Business partner Adrian Sussmann recalled all the elements that made Wheldon so compelling: He was a fierce competitor, a loving father, a doting husband and a bit of a TV showman.
"According to him, he never gave a bad interview," Sussmann said, "and he always looked impeccable."
Holly Wheldon wrote in her letter about how much her brother meant to the entire family. She also shared an amusing scene involving the world-famous race car driver:
"Everyone knew my brother was a clean freak," she wrote. "I shared his compulsive disorder. It wasn't unusual for us to have (rags) in hand, cleaning the floor together with a cup of tea as a reward."
• • •
Dan Wheldon married Susie Behm in 2008. They had two children: Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, seven months. Just before the funeral, she wrote a letter to her husband. Family friend Michael Johnson read it aloud.
"My heart is scattered in a million pieces. I just want to wake up and hear your reassuring voice ... I keep praying that it's all a bad dream, that I'll wake up and you'll be lying by my side.
"Each day that passes takes me further and further away from you. Everything is moving so quickly and I can't make it stop."
She recalled the first time she laid eyes on her future husband: "Look at that cool, stylish Brit." Then she got to know him.
"I asked you what your back-up plan was if you didn't make it in racing. You looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I don't need one. I'm going to make it.' "
Then she recalled their last moments together before Wheldon's last race.
"You were a true lionheart, my love. I will never forget our final moments together on the grid before you climbed into your car.
"I love you, Daniel Clive Wheldon. Thank you for sharing your love and your life with me."
• • •
The IndyCar world also came to St. Petersburg to say goodbye.
Founder Tony George, CEO Randy Bernard and racing legend-turned-owner Roger Penske were all in attendance.
Wheldon's pallbearers included Dixon and fellow IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. Brothers Austen, Elliott and Ashley Wheldon completed the pallbearers. Their father, Clive Wheldon, cradled his son's racing helmet as they escorted the casket to a hearse.
Driver Danica Patrick was also there, as was Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd. Her half-sister, country music singer Wynonna Judd, sang I Can Only Imagine and Amazing Grace during the ceremony.
She apologized if she choked up during the performance. But her voice did not waver until the last verse: "I can only imagine," she whispered.
Wheldon was to be buried at a private ceremony, according to the city. IndyCar would not comment on the driver's final arrangements.
• • •
After the ceremony, Wheldon's fans recalled what made him one of IndyCar's most popular drivers: He always had time for them.
Margo Riddlebaugh, 64, attended the funeral with her daughter, Angela Chase, 33, who brought her three sons: Joshua, 16; Justin, 10; and Aaron, 16 months. They've all seen Wheldon race since the very first St. Pete Grand Prix.
"He was one of the kindest people ...," Chase began to say.
"...you could ever meet," added her son, Justin, finishing the thought.
He was so kind, in fact, that one day during the 2009 Grand Prix Riddlebaugh stepped out into traffic — and right in front of Wheldon's scooter.
He had to slam on his brakes. And what did he do next?
"He signed autographs for us," Riddlebaugh said.