We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With eight days to go, we talk to motorsports journalist Jeff Olson about the new book “Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon” he co-wrote with Andy Hallbery.
How did this project come to you? As a journalist, I’m guessing this is a piece that’s more of an honor to put together than “work.”
“It was an idea I’d kicked around for a few years, but for some time it never went anywhere. The original vision — a large, hardcover photo book with stories told by the people closest to Dan — is largely how it turned out. I took the idea to a few publishers, mostly for advice and guidance, and then pitched it at Andy Hallbery, who I’d worked with at RACER for years. He was in the middle of writing “Romance of Racing” with Dario Franchitti. Andy and I got together at Fontana in 2014, and he brought page proofs of Dario’s book. I knew at that point that Andy had the skill and connections to do it. I was a writer, but had no clue how to put those words into print in that format. Andy did. From there, we approached others to back the book, and at the 2015 season opener in St. Petersburg we met with Holly Wheldon (Dan’s sister) and Dario. They embraced the project, as did Dan’s wife Susie, so it took off from there. And yes, it’s been an honor throughout.”
“He was difficult in the beginning because he wanted to be. He played games to test your mettle. His game with me was pretending to not know my name, which eventually turned into a running joke between us. He could be a pistol and a pain, but once he accepted me, I was in. Part of gaining that acceptance was not being rattled by him. He was a complicated guy, but later on he became kind and generous and grateful. As I wrote in the book, I was ghostwriting a series of columns for him for USA TODAY leading up to the Las Vegas race in 2011. He was happy and positive throughout the process. In his last text message, after enthusiastically endorsing his column, he wrote, “Don’t get too drunk tonight, mate!”
What are your lasting memories from Dan’s first “500” title, in 2005? That was my first as a reporter and I remember “Danicamania” almost swallowing the month whole and then continuing after her Rookie of the Year run. But he loved winning here and appeared to take the shared attention in stride afterward.
“Initially he was bothered by it, and I think part of that generated from the fact that he wasn’t getting much attention for his accomplishments back in the UK. He’d won three races in his first full season in IndyCar, including Honda’s first win at its track, Twin Ring Motegi, yet there were crickets in terms of mainstream acknowledgement at home. He won three more races in 2005 leading up to the Indy win, so he was an established new star in the series, which also was struggling for mainstream attention in the States. He wasn’t really being acknowledged here or abroad. Then along comes Danica, who finishes fourth and steals his attention at Indy. It gnawed at him, but he had fun with it, as well. Another noteworthy element of that story: He was always nice to Danica and treated her with respect, so he understood the larger picture. It wasn’t her fault that she received the bulk of the attention that day. She was what people were interested in.”
One Indy 500 win makes you a legend, and two moves you into an even more exclusive club. He only got to enjoy life as a two-time champion for four-plus months, and for most of that time he wasn’t racing as he didn’t have a full-time IndyCar ride. What do you remember from that period?
“I remember the following day. Customarily the winning driver returns to the Speedway the morning after for a photo shoot and a few short interviews. Many times, because of the post-race party, the day-after responsibilities are trying. After his first win in 2005, he’d barely slept, was still glazed over, and — while thrilled — was in the throes of a powerful hangover. But in 2011, he was completely sharp and professional. He went through key moments of the race on video with reporters, happily posed for countless photos, and stepped back into the offices in the media center to do some radio interviews by phone. Those two day-after snapshots — the bleary-eyed Dan of 2005 and the polished, professional Dan of 2011 — perfectly illustrate the change he’d undergone as a person. He matured 20 years in those six.”
In the book it’s no surprise to see tributes from former teammates like Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, but the pieces from photographers and non-IndyCar types like Jimmie Johnson were unexpected and equally insightful. Which of those were your favorites?
“All of them were great, but one of my favorite chapters was Sam Hornish Jr.’s. Not many people know that Sam and Dan were friends, and it stems from the two races Dan had with Panther Racing at the end of the 2002 season. The two were polar opposites: Dan was outgoing, loud and flamboyant; Sam was shy, quiet and reticent. In his chapter, Sam talks about how Dan helped him open up and become less withdrawn. It’s one of the more moving chapters, in part because he talks about what Dan meant to him and how deeply saddened he was by his death.”
Someday you’ll see Dan again. What kind of remark might he have for you now?
“Something light and affirmative, hopefully. I thought about him a great deal during this process, always keeping in mind that he was extraordinarily self-aware and very much a perfectionist. He would’ve wanted a big book, but only if it was spot-on. I’d like to hear him say, ‘Good one, mate. You got it right. Now buy me a drink.'”
The book is on sale at the IMS Museum and various gift shops around the Speedway for $74.99, with proceeds benefitting the Dan Wheldon Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Association, two causes close to Wheldon’s family. After the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 29, the book will be available worldwide via amazon.com. For more information, visit lionheartbook.com.