Susie Wheldon’s two sons want to be elite race-car drivers someday, which is no surprise. Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon’s father, Dan, won the Indianapolis 500 twice and an IndyCar Series driving championship, and as Susie says of her boys, now ages 12 and 10 respectively: “They have that blood in their veins.”
Sebastian and Oliver started racing go-karts at a track near their home in St Petersburg, Florida, before they were even old enough to go to school. They decided they liked racing enough to focus on it, knowing that the sport is competitive.
They also know, all too well, that the sport is extremely perilous. Dan Wheldon, the brash-yet-charming, silver-shoed British star on the IndyCar Series, was killed at the age of just 33 in October 2011 when his car was involved in a multi-car crash in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Before she married Dan Wheldon in 2008, Susie was a racing publicist for a sponsor, then a personal assistant for her husband at Chip Ganassi’s race team, so she was familiar with the dangers of racing. But allowing her sons to chase racing careers like their father turned out to be not all that complicated a decision.
“It’s not my decision – it’s their decision,” Wheldon tells the Guardian. “At the end of the day, I have to put my feelings aside. I certainly don’t have all the answers as to the best way to go.”
She says racing was not necessarily something she wanted her sons to do, and she kept asking them if racing was really something they wanted. But she adds firmly, referring to her husband’s fatal accident: “It was never a question of, ‘I’m never going to let them do that because of what happened.’”
So her sons were added in April as developmental junior drivers at Andretti Autosport, the powerful race team owned by Michael Andretti, the former series champion who is the son of the legendary Mario Andretti. Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 for Michael Andretti in 2005 and was to rejoin the team in 2012, replacing Danica Patrick, who went to Nascar.
For now, the Wheldon boys will drive in three national series in go-karts, which are substantially slower, lighter and safer than those turbocharged rockets on the IndyCar Series. Andretti has given similar opportunities to other young drivers over the years, but Wheldon understands her sons will be more closely monitored, because of who their father was. “I almost feel as if they have to prove themselves more,” Wheldon says.
The agreement was announced literally beneath a monument of Dan before the IndyCar Series season opener, which was held at St Petersburg. Wheldon says she has been “blown away” by the positive feedback she has received after the announcement, even though she already knew her husband was well-liked and well-respected in the racing community.
“I think he’d have the biggest smile on his face,” says Wheldon, who was born in Canada but moved to the US when she was 15. “I think he’d be over the moon. He’d probably offer a lot of guidance – and a lot more than that.”
Like his sons, Dan Wheldon, who was born in Emberton, Buckinghamshire, started racing go-karts. He was inspired by Nigel Mansell, the British driver who won both the Formula One world championship and the IndyCar World Series. Wheldon climbed the racing ladder steadily, landing in the US in 1999. By 2002, he was racing in the IndyCar Series, and by 2003, he was in his first Indy 500, flipping his car and finishing 19th.
He won the Indy 500 in 2005 and 2011, but he was somewhat overshadowed both times – in 2005 by Patrick, who became the first woman to lead the race, and in 2011 by the American rookie JR Hildebrand, who crashed on the 800th and final turn while leading the race, allowing Wheldon to slip past him to win the race on the last day of his contract.
Less than five months after he posed with Susie at the start-finish line at Indy – him holding Sebastian in his arms, her cradling Oliver in her arms – Dan was gone. IndyCar later said in a 49-page report a “perfect storm” of unforeseeable events led to the fatal
accident. Wheldon won 16 IndyCar races and more than $16m in 10 seasons.
When Sebastian, then Oliver, turned to driving, then became more serious about it, Wheldon says she missed it, too, adding: “I kind of realized that I’d been in racing a long time, and I knew how to take care of an established driver.”
She teamed up with her husband’s former business agent, Adrian Sussman, to, as she says, “figure out what we can do by the boys and see where they’d be the best fit”. It turned out to be Michael Andretti’s team. “I feel like their team is always looking out and seeing who’s coming through the ranks,” she says.
When the arrangement was announced, Andretti said: “We see a lot of Dan in both Sebastian and Oliver,” adding: “No one will ever be able to replace Dan in their lives, but we’re happy to offer a network for mentorship to help the boys grow their careers.”
Wheldon says she thinks her sons are, in many ways, predisposed for such a venture, saying of the attention: “They’ve managed it very well, but they’ve been under a spotlight for a long time. Their dad was a champion driver. It’s been a part of their lives.” And yet, she says: “They’re typical kids. They love to run around and be outside.”
She acknowledges the dilemma faced by many other parents with children of similar ages, who feel they suddenly need to specialize in an activity to excel at it: “It’s kind of crazy. You don’t have time to commit to anything else,” she says.
Two years ago, she closed a clothing boutique in St Petersburg to focus on her sons’ racing aspirations, and the three of them went to the Indy 500 last month. But she says as her sons step up the intensity of their interesting career path: “If they want to step away, great. If they decide they want to do more local races, then great, too.”