Published November 20, 2014
Dan Wheldon embarked on his new mission Monday — finding a job.
Less than 24 hours after JR Hildebrand's crash gave the Englishman an improbable second Indianapolis 500 title, Wheldon was contemplating his racing future. With no ride lined up for IndyCar's next two stops — Texas and Milwaukee — or any other venue this year, his season could be one and done.
"I'm unemployed. I'm unemployed," Wheldon said during his day-after victory tour. "I'm sure Bryan will do everything he can to keep me in a race car, but Bryan is an astute businessman, too."
In racing parlance, that means no sponsorship money, no ride.
For the moment, Wheldon has neither, and the sour economy isn't helping.
His contract with Bryan Herta Autosport expired at midnight, hours after a stunning victory gave the team a win in only its second Indy start. It was Wheldon's first win since 2008, and there's no guarantee Herta or Wheldon will compete again on the IndyCar circuit this season.
Herta's game plan was to run one race, Indy, then build its way into a full-time IndyCar team in 2012, a route he might still take. But Wheldon's win has changed things a bit.
Herta said Monday that he's already fielding some inquiries from businesses interested in working with the winning team and winning driver from Sunday's centennial anniversary race.
"I think there could be some opportunities created for us to continue," Herta said. "I'm sure that Dan will get some opportunities, and my hope is we'll be able to work together later this year."
Wheldon almost certainly would accept Herta's deal.
Yes, he had chances to sign contracts for more races with other teams, yet he chose Herta's one-off deal because he thought it was the best equipped to compete.
Herta's team, Wheldon said, gave him confidence the No. 98 car could win, and Herta's team was willing to listen when Wheldon questioned the numbers his engineer wanted to use for setting up the car on race day. On Saturday, the engineer called Wheldon back to thank him for pointing out the flaw in the calculation, which might have been the difference between winning and losing this year's 500.
To Wheldon, it seemed like a throwback to 2005, the year he dominated IndyCars with six wins and 12 top-fives in 16 starts and easily won the points title as well as the 500.
"I felt like the old Dan was back, the confident, bubbly Dan," Wheldon said. "That's why I do this."
Now everyone's trying to figure out where Wheldon will land next.
He said he would consider running in October's Gold Coast 600, a V8 Supercar road race in Australia, though he doesn't yet have a ride. He would like to compete in more IndyCar races, too, if he can hook up with the right team.
And those kinds of offers aren't always easy for 32-year-old drivers to find.
"I'm pretty sure no Formula One team is going to look at me because I'm getting a little older," Wheldon said. "Honestly, I have to evaluate all of my options now because I don't have a contract and I still feel like I've got some left in me."
Winning his second Borg-Warner trophy could help. Winning it the way he did, with Hildebrand's unbelievable mistake, almost certainly will help Wheldon jump back onto the racing radar.
"The last lap, I was catching Ana Beatriz and I didn't want to lift," Wheldon said. "When I came out of turn four, I was just focused on clearing her, and then I saw, just then, that he had hit the wall. I wanted to make sure I didn't hit any debris. I was just very surprised he (Hildebrand) went that high."
Few have excelled on the series' trickiest track like Wheldon. He won on the 2.5-mile oval in 2005 and 2011, had runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010, top-fives in 2004 and 2006 and has completed all but 47 laps in nine Indy starts.
Herta insists it's a record that proves Wheldon is still at the top of his game.
"I don't know why people didn't know that already, just look at what he's done at Indianapolis," Herta said. "I think any team would be lucky to have him in a car. We'd be lucky to keep him in the car."