ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When Dan Wheldon won the inaugural IndyCar race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, he celebrated hours after the victory by jumping into the Tampa Bay.
That was one of the many memories of Wheldon shared Wednesday after a street was named for the late race car driver along the St. Petersburg race course. The corner of Bayshore Drive and Albert Whitted Park will now be known as Dan Wheldon Way, and the street sign was unveiled by Mayor Bill Foster and Wheldon's wife, Susie.
Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was killed in an Oct. 16 accident during last season's finale.
"I just want to take the opportunity to thank my St. Petersburg family for all the love and support over the last several months," Susie Wheldon said during the ceremony. "What a beautiful gift to be part of his legacy, and it's something we can all share for years to come. Sebastian and Oliver will be so proud to know the impact their father had on this community and the world of motorsports."
The street is in Turn 10 on the course, the spot where Wheldon passed Ryan Briscoe to win the 2005 race, and the ceremony was during lunchtime of IndyCar's annual media day. Almost all the active drivers were in attendance, and the entire first row stood to hug Susie Wheldon when she arrived at the ceremony carrying young son, Sebastian.
As IndyCar continues to recover from the horrific accident that claimed Wheldon, he remains a very central part of the upcoming March 25 opener. A representative for Wheldon's family said Susie Wheldon has not yet decided if she'll stay in St. Petersburg for the race.
The emotions still run deep for almost everyone involved some four months after the Englishman's death.
"You know, for me, I lost one of my best friends, and globally, IndyCar lost a tremendous ambassador," said Tony Kanaan, a one-time teammate of Wheldon's. "Just driving in today, I remembered everytime I came here when he was alive, I remembered all the great memories we had with him here.
"And now, the last time I was here, it was to bury him. When I lost my dad, I always had the illusion that eventually it will go away and I've learned it never will. Same with Dan."
Wheldon's fatality was the first in a major racing series since NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. NASCAR raced the very next weekend.
But Wheldon's death came in the season finale, and the inability to get right back on the race track made the mourning period more difficult for some.
"It's been the longest offseason of my life. Our offseason is too long anyway without having that happen," Marco Andretti said. "It was definitely a tough one. We're all going to be driving St. Pete with heavy hearts. The way I persevere and keep going is I look at Dan as a competitor — he was a competitor so we're going to show up and compete."
The accident has amped up safety discussions, and came in the final race for IndyCar's old car. The new model, named the Dallara DW12 because Wheldon helped develop it all of last year, will debut in the opener and has been billed as a safer car with improved technology.
"I feel safe in this car, it's designed to be safer. Safe in the cockpit, safer for racing, especially with the side pod that we have to prevent this type of scenario of the car flying and interlocked wheels," said Helio Castroneves. "We always have to remember that our sport is a dangerous sport. We can't forget that and there is always some risk factor. But at this point, I'm safe and I believe that the drivers feel pretty much the same way."
Still, the debate over pack racing continued, with a focus on the June 9 race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a high-banked oval that was dropped from IndyCar's schedule this season as series officials evaluate whether the new car is compatible with that track. The drivers are united in their desire for pack racing to be eliminated, and IndyCar has scheduled a May 7 open test at Texas in an attempt to find a formula that will spread out the field.
A second issue with Texas is the fence construction, which is similar to Las Vegas' in that its poles are on the inside of the track. Texas president Eddie Gossage reacted angrily last week to a report that drivers had discussed boycotting the race because of the fence, and his comments are still rippling through the series. Wheldon was killed when his head hit a post in the Las Vegas fence.
"I'll just say it's a very personal and emotional thing because of what we've gone through, and unless you've driven an IndyCar at Texas, you don't understand that," said four-time series champion Dario Franchitti. "I think it seems as if Gossage is trying to use the drivers concerns about this as a way of promoting. And that's not very nice."
Gossage maintains that engineers from Speedway Motorsports Inc. think the fence is constructed the best way possible, and has challenged the drivers' knowledge on the subject.
"If there was a better technology, we would do it," Gossage said earlier this week. "Or, if there was something that should be done but we couldn't economically afford it and make running IndyCar work with the numbers, then we just wouldn't run IndyCar here. But right now, what we have, our engineers tell us is the best, and I have yet to meet a driver who is also a structural engineer."
Oriol Servia, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, is most vocal among the drivers about the fence and continued to question the construction on Wednesday. He has previously discussed the situation with track owner Bruton Smith, and was surprised by Gossage's "aggressive" comments about IndyCar drivers last week.
"I am not any specialist on fences, but I just think common sense tells you you don't want the post there," Servia said. "Everyone wants to make the sport better, nobody is pointing fingers, we are just trying to improve and I just find there is no possible argument to tell me that it's safer for anybody to have it this way. I just cannot see any potential argument.
"I am just voicing my opinion, I am just one driver, this is not "the drivers speaking" and I hate that now the focus is about boycotts, which was never the case. It is just trying to make the sport better, and if it's really not better, then OK, show me that your way is better."