INDIANAPOLIS (Oct. 12, 2011) – For two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, the week leading up to the Las Vegas Indy 300, part of the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships presented by Honda weekend, is full of potential distractions. There are autograph sessions, fan appearances, sponsor meetings, press conferences, fundraisers, dinners, and the event-within-the-event called the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge, where he could win $5 million. But don’t be fooled, Wheldon is focused only on one goal in Las Vegas – winning the final IZOD IndyCar Series race of 2011.
Wheldon will be driving the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia/William Rast Dallara/Honda/Firestone car, which is co-entered by Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Bryan Herta Autosport with support from Curb-Agajanian, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. It has already proven to be a winning partnership as it was Schmidt and Herta who collaborated in May to provide the car with which Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500.
Driving that car out of the Schmidt Indy car fleet and entered by Bryan Herta Autosport, Wheldon etched his name in the history books by winning his second Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. Interestingly, the 100th Anniversary of the Indy 500 was to be the only IndyCar race on the Emberton, England driver’s 2011 schedule until just a few weeks ago.
In a recent press conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard announced that Wheldon had been selected to drive in the $5 million Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge in Las Vegas in the final IndyCar Series race of the season. As the reigning Indy 500 champion, Wheldon is the only driver eligible to accept the challenge. Wheldon must start the Las Vegas Indy 300 in the last row and then go on to win the race to collect the $5 million prize.
If Wheldon wins, the $5 million Go Daddy prize will be split between Wheldon and one fan who registered through a Verizon Mobile contest.
To prepare for the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge, Wheldon was offered the opportunity to drive the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia car in the IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway two weekends ago. Though he finished 14th, he was pleased with the competitiveness of the car and team. It was the same Honda-powered car he’ll race this weekend. It’s also the same car driver Alex Tagliani put on the pole for this year’s Indianapolis 500 and drove to a pole position at Texas in June.
As the consummate professional, Wheldon won’t be distracted by all the activity during the IZOD IndyCar Series’ big championship week in Las Vegas. He’s won the world’s largest race – the Indy 500 – twice, and both times he thrived in all the distractions that swirl around the pressure cooker that is Indy.
When he puts the visor down on his helmet on Sunday, he’ll be focused on one thing – winning. And who doesn’t want to win $5 million in Las Vegas?
Dan Wheldon, Driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia/William Rast Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
What did you enjoy most about getting back in an IZOD IndyCar Series car and racing at Kentucky Speedway?
“For me, it felt extremely good to be back racing in a competitive environment. I shouldn’t say racing in a competitive environment, I should say being in a competitive environment. I’ve been blessed to be involved with testing the next-generation Indy car this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed that program with Bryan Herta Autosport and everybody at the IndyCar Series. But the one thing that lacked, though I’ve been in the racecar an awful lot, which I love, I’m only up against myself. I know testing the car is a very serious responsibility, which I actually do enjoy because of the fact we are developing a new racecar with the team for the series. But, you’re not racing against anybody. So for me to be back and driving the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia/William Rast car in Kentucky for the Sam Schmidt team was phenomenal. It’s a great team. Obviously, I’m very familiar with the team from the Indianapolis 500, where I worked not only with Bryan Herta but with the Sam Schmidt team, as well. We proved to have a great deal of success. So yes, it was great to be back. The result was not what I wanted, and we’ll be looking to make that right in Vegas. ”
Does the old saying “It’s just like riding a bike,” really apply to driving a racecar at 200 mph?
“Yes, for me it does. I mean, perhaps I haven’t been racing, but I’ve been in the 2012 car a lot, so for me it was very easy to get back up to speed in the current car. I’m probably showing my age a little bit, but I’ve done so many miles in the current car that I feel very at-home in it and very comfortable. Getting back up to speed wasn’t an issue at all.”
You have said you weren’t happy with your Kentucky Speedway car, but what positives did you take with you out of Kentucky?
“I wasn’t happy about finishing 14th in Kentucky, but the positives I did take away from that race were, for me, it was important to prepare for the Las Vegas race. I hadn’t done any pit stops in a long time, so it was good to get back in the swing of that. Fast in and out laps are very crucial for races like Kentucky and Vegas. So it was good to be doing them again in a race situation. It was also good to just get back up to speed with some of the racing nuances, no matter how much practice you do in a practice kind of environment. You know you just can’t replicate race situations. I think those would be the positives. But, Kentucky has always been one of my stronger tracks and so I was extremely disappointed with the result.”
Do you feel that you and the Sam Schmidt team are close to having a winning package in Vegas?
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t be doing this with Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia car with William Rast if I didn’t feel I was able to win. A lot of the interest that has been generated and the possible opportunities for 2012 for me are purely because I got back in the car and won at the Indianapolis 500. So, there’s no doubt I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could win. I was extremely disappointed with the result at Kentucky. For me, coming back, it was extremely important that I did well, and that wasn’t the case. I have every confidence in the team. Honda always supplies very equal engines and, obviously, the Firestone tire is consistent. From that standpoint, it’s down to myself and the team. We know the car has been very fast at Indianapolis, so we’ll definitely try and put together what I feel will be a good package for the Vegas race.”
You’ve said several times that it’s not about the money when you race at this point in your career. But for one fan in Las Vegas, the race will be about the money. Talk about the fact that you have the potential to change somebody’s life by making someone an instant millionaire.
“This is a great opportunity that Randy Bernard and the IndyCar Series have allowed me to participate in with great support from Go Daddy and Verizon. I think this is a fantastic opportunity. Randy didn’t actually pick me, personally. He went to the person who has generated the most media this year. As a result of winning the Indianapolis 500, that happened to be me. To have this opportunity is something I’m extremely proud of. To have the ability to win $2.5 million for me and $2.5 million for a fan is something to get extremely excited about. It’s a lot of money in this economy, right now, and I genuinely think we have a shot. There were obviously other drivers considered for this opportunity but, for Randy, it’s about moving and raising the bar – someone who will move the needle. I feel honored that he feels I will be able to do that. For the other three (drivers), it’s unfortunate circumstances that they couldn’t take part in this event. But I genuinely feel the fans will be really excited because they know I’ve been successful on this type of racetrack. With the SSM team, we will be a genuine threat. It would give me a great deal of satisfaction to share $5 million with a fan. It means an extreme amount to me, and I think it’s going to be a fantastic weekend that will really set the tone for the 2012 IndyCar Series season. This is going to generate a lot of interest among mainstream media. Randy Bernard has some great visions for the series. People are very much behind him because they can see the momentum he is creating and moving the needle, as he says.”