DIXON HELPS WHELDON FAMILY ANY WAY HE CAN
By Bruce Martin, SI.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- When Scott Dixon met his new teammate at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2005 season he wasn't quite sure what to expect. After all, Dan Wheldon was a fierce competitor and rival who had dominated the season by winning six races, including the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship for what was then Andretti Green Racing.
Dixon, a quiet and determined driver from Auckland, New Zealand, had won the 2003 IndyCar title, but his personality was far different than the ebullient and flamboyant Wheldon, an outgoing and talkative young lad from Emberton, England.
"It was kind of a funny relationship," Dixon said recently, when interviewed by SI.com in the wake of Wheldon's death. "When we first met we didn't actually get along that well. We were decent friends, but not until we became teammates and got through the first year in 2006. That was up and down because we didn't know how to take each other. After the 2006 season we really bonded and were really, really good friends.
"He was super close, and when we started families that kicked it up another gear. We would do holidays and hang out at the track with the kids. For me, that is the hardest part with [his widow] Susie, [his kids] Sebastian and Oliver, and Dan's family, too. He left a lot behind."
The two were once bachelors who ran together before each settled down. Dixon would marry the former Emma Davies and Wheldon would marry Susie Behm. The Dixons and the Wheldons would even become parents at relatively the same time. The Dixons had a daughter, Poppy, while the Wheldons had son Sebastian, both born two years ago. Oliver joined the Wheldon family seven months ago and the Dixons welcomed a second daughter, Tilly, on Sept. 10.
During their friendship, the two drivers enjoyed tremendous rewards on the racetrack, with Wheldon winning two Indy 500s and one series title while Dixon was a two-time IndyCar champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner.
"When you win races and you win championships, that is what defines you professionally," said Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "But the interaction of all of us, the friendships we develop over time, that outlasts winning."
Truer words have never been spoken when describing the bond that existed between the Dixons and the Wheldons. And that is why Dixon has moved his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., for the next few months to help take care of those left behind after Wheldon was killed in a massive 15-car crash in the IndyCar Series race in Las Vegas on Oct. 16.
"We actually rented a house just down the road from Susie and will stay here for a couple months to see how she does, and what she wants to do, and if she wants to move with her parents in North Carolina or if she wants to stay here," Dixon said. "We are trying to support her. Unfortunately, in most instances like this, once the ceremony and things are over everybody kind of checks out of town. We want to remain here for her and her family."
The Dixons stepped up to offer their help shortly after the accident. Scott and Emma spent that night with Susie in her hotel room to provide care and comfort as she awaited her family's arrival from North Carolina. In the days that followed, the Dixons remained with her as she returned to St. Petersburg.
"Everybody grieves differently, but for me, in many ways, it still doesn't feel like it has hit," says Dixon. "I'm just trying to help and stay busy."
Wheldon's funeral was held in St. Petersburg on Oct. 22. The Dixons attended that and flew with the Wheldons to Indianapolis for the "Celebration of Life" that was held at Conseco Fieldhouse the following day.
Dixon and Wheldon were teammates at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing from 2006 to '08. The team did not renew Wheldon's contract after than span, replacing him instead with his close friend, Dario Franchitti. But after Wheldon left the team, his friendship with Dixon only became stronger.
"Scott Dixon was pretty good on the ovals and at the beginning, when Dan turned up, Scott and Dan were not the best of friends," Hull recalled. "But what they had in common was racing. It is what drove them together. It created a friendship that is pretty special but at the time they couldn't figure each other out. As the year went on Scott started looking at the data and said, `I don't really understand how Dan can do that. I have to work on that.' Today Scott Dixon will tell you he is better on an oval because of Dan Wheldon.
"Those two guys worked pretty good together. Dan was a teammate. He was a friend and he made it happen for us in race situations. He was one of the best things at Chip Ganassi Racing that ever happened to me."
Despite the tragedy, Dixon doesn't believe his racing style will change.
"There is no doubt you change but that is more on a personal level," Dixon explained. "For me and with Dan, we were doing the thing we loved the most. You see these things, they happen and they are always in the back of your head as a possibility, but I don't think it has changed my racing at all. I've said that to Emma. When I get in the car I love my wife and kids more than anything, but I'm not thinking about that side of things. I'm thinking about the car, I'm thinking about the race and I'm thinking about how to make the car faster. It's different once you get out of the car and you go back to the motor home and your wife and kids are there. It changes your personal life, but on the track it hasn't changed me.
"When I'm out there all I want to do is win."
Since Wheldon's death the sanity of IndyCar racing has come into question. Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said those cars should no longer compete on ovals, although he later backtracked and said they shouldn't race on the high-banked 1.5-mile ovals like Las Vegas.
Despite the death of his friend, Dixon defends IndyCar but admits there is time to make it safer.
"Because of the tragedy more people are going to listen and be proactive," Dixon said. "In some ways, too, it's a reality check to show how dangerous racing is in general. It's not just IndyCar. A lot of people have spoken out of tongue too much with crazy things about not racing on ovals ever again. IndyCar is what it is and in the back of our minds we all know it is a dangerous sport.
"Even the week of the Vegas race we knew there would be big crashes and I thought the race would be stupid, but we never thought it would be like it was. ... But earlier in the week there were two things that Dan absolutely adored in his life -- that was his family and IndyCar racing. I don't think he would want to see it in the way of not ever racing on ovals again. That was his specialty.
"The guy was [expletive] good on all kinds of ovals including Indianapolis ... I don't think he would want anything like that -- not racing on ovals ever again -- to happen."
Unlike Wheldon, Dixon was more of an all-around driver who could win on street circuits, road courses and ovals. But Dixon's ability on the ovals actually improved when Wheldon was his teammate and it was something Wheldon loved to remind his former team, especially after Dixon won the A.J. Foyt Trophy as the oval champion in the IndyCar Series this past season.
"At Las Vegas we were talking before the race and he hadn't qualified well there and Scott Dixon hadn't qualified that well there and he said, `I taught Dixon everything he knows and he didn't do a very good job.' I said to Dan, `I'll make sure I pass that along,'" Hull said. "Dan asked, `Have you etched my name on the A.J. Foyt Trophy? My name needs to be on that trophy that Dixon just got because I taught him everything about oval racing.'
"Dan was always looking at helping people and getting all of us to enjoy each other. Racing was the catalyst to make that happen. I have respect for the integrity he had but more so for the friendship. Our relationship and friendship became stronger after he left us and how unusual is that?
Dixon has accumulated some incredible accomplishments in his career, including 26 IndyCar wins (27 counting his one win in CART), 17 poles, an Indianapolis 500 victory and two IndyCar titles. But those statistics pale in comparison to his measure as a man and a friend as his family is willing to be there for Susie Wheldon and her two young sons as they deal with the loss of a husband and a father.
In a sport where competitors are racing against time, Dixon has proven that true friendship can last a lifetime.