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Susie Wheldon, wife of late IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, opens up about life without him

Time:2018-12-05 20:05Turbochargers information Click:

Wife Late Susie Wheldon IndyCa

At the edge of the racetrack, on a wide pad of asphalt, Susie Wheldon stooped to help her small son.

Sebastian, 7, already had wriggled into his Puma fire suit. Susie slid the chest protector over his head, to keep his lungs from being crushed. She strapped on the neck brace, to protect his spine. She tied his tiny racing shoes.

"Ready to go?" asked his coach.

The boy nodded, and climbed into his new Kid Kart. As soon as he pulled the helmet over his spiky blonde hair, his usual grin melted. He scrunched his freckled nose and set his jaw. "Getting his game face on," Susie called it.

Live blog: Follow along at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

He lowered the visor. She bent and kissed the spot in front of his mouth. Just like she had done before every race with his dad, her Dan.

Her husband was 33, a two-time Indy 500 champion, when he died in a crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Five years later, Susie, 38, has built a new home, started a new business and struggled to be a single mom to two boisterous boys. Letting her son race, she said, is the hardest thing she has had to do.

On a dreary winter Sunday at the Ocala Gran Prix, she watched her first-grader plant his feet on both sides of a gas tank. Between his knees sloshed a gallon of fuel. The go-cart doesn't have a seat belt; if it flips going 60 mph, the coach said, it's better for the driver to be ejected than to roll with the wreckage.

"Good luck!" Susie said, trying to smile. She waited until her son revved the engine, then stepped aside.

Marc Serota | Getty Images (2008)

Dan Wheldon kisses his wife, Susie Wheldon, as he celebrates his win during the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at the Kansas Speedway on April 27, 2008, in Kansas City, Kansas.

When Susie met Dan, they were 23. She had just graduated from a small Christian college and taken a job at an advertising agency. He had just signed with Michael Andretti's team and was named the IndyCar Series' Rookie of the Year.

They were introduced at a photo shoot for Jim Beam whiskey.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Susie Wheldon talks with the Tampa Bay Times during interview at Verve, the boutique she is opening on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

"Cocky. Self-confident. Outgoing, but not really arrogant," she called the toothy young driver. "He was wearing this long black peacoat and had this mussed blonde hair and great English accent. I noticed he was handsome. But I was so busy trying to fake that I knew what I was doing, I never saw him as my future husband."

Dan Wheldon had grown up in a small town north of London. His dad, a plumber, raced go-carts and put Dan in the driver's seat when he was 4. By 10, Dan was British Junior Kart champion. After high school, he moved to America to drive Indy cars.

He and Susie worked together for two years. She set up photo shoots, staging him with the Jim Beam logo, traveling to races. She was cheering at the finish line when he won his first race in Japan, screaming beside the track in 2005, when he won St. Petersburg's first grand prix.

Later that year, after winning the Indianapolis 500, she said, "That was the first time I really felt him hug me." The celebration was epic. Susie had to stay sober, to make sure Dan got to his 6 a.m. interview with "Good Morning America." At 5:30 a.m., she pulled him out of the still raging party, propped him in a chair, put a microphone in his hand — and woke him when he fell asleep during commercials.

When Dan decided to move to St. Petersburg a few months later, he asked Susie to come work for him as his personal assistant. So she followed him to Florida, helped him build a house on Snell Isle and manage his new-found stardom.

Sometimes, she made reservations for his dinner dates and bought gifts for other women. She swore she wasn't jealous. "I loved my job," she said. "I didn't want to do anything to screw that up."

There wasn't one single moment when everything shifted, Susie said. "I just felt it happening. He started being much more tender toward me."

Just before Christmas in 2007, Dan called Susie out to the dock behind his home. "Something's wrong with the jet ski," he said. He held out a ring and dropped to one knee.

They married three months later; a year after that, baby Sebastian was born.

"Dan fell in love with fatherhood," Susie said. "He changed diapers, took his boy everywhere."

Sebastian was 18 months old, barely toddling, when Dan first sat him in his lap in a go-cart and sped around a track. "He would have had him driving at 2," Susie said, "if his feet could've reached the pedals."

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2009)

Dan Wheldon holds his son Sebastian, then only 8 weeks old, at their Snell Isle home in St. Petersburg.

Susie never felt frightened, she said. In almost a decade of watching Dan drive around a 2.5-mile track, topping speeds of 200 mph, she never thought about her husband being in danger.

"But Dan did," she said. "He'd bring it up when we were dating. 'You might find you don't want to be with a race car driver,' he'd say. 'This life can be scary.' "

Everyone in the racing community knew someone who had been killed on a track. One of their friends, who had young kids, had been paralyzed. Susie just didn't dwell on those possibilities.

Dan was so experienced. He had flipped cars, been crushed in pileups.

But he always came out smiling that over-sized grin.

• • •

No one thought Dan had a chance to win the Indy 500 again in the summer of 2011. "He hadn't raced for a while," Susie said.

She took Sebastian to the track, along with a new addition to their family, 3-month-old Oliver.

She watched from the pit stall, where she could hear her husband on his headset, through the radio.

After four hours of driving, with two laps to go, Dan was still behind. Then, in the last turn, someone crashed. And Dan pulled ahead. Susie held her breath. "I thought he would run out of fuel."

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