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When it came to racing, Wheldon drove with his heart

By Phil Gast, CNN
October 17, 2011 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two-time Indy 500 winner was killed Sunday at Las Vegas race
  • Born in England, he likened himself to Richard the Lionheart
  • He also was a bit superstitious
  • Driver recalls Dan Wheldon's growing maturity, love of family

(CNN) -- Dan Wheldon brought a bit of England with him when he began driving extremely fast cars in the United States.

"When I first started racing, a lot of the guys said that I raced with a lot of heart, occasionally not my head, but always with a lot of heart, like the way that Richard the Lionheart fought in battle," Wheldon wrote on a sponsor's blog in 2010.

Wheldon placed a small mural of the 12th-century warrior king on his helmet in 1995, before he competed in America, and eventually released "Lionheart," a biographical photo book.

Sunday, Wheldon's fellow IndyCar drivers remembered the heart, competitiveness and growing maturity of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, who died in a horrific multi-car wreck at a Las Vegas event.

Wheldon dies in 15-car pileup

A shaken Dario Franchitti, speaking after the canceled Las Vegas Indy 300, said "one minute you're joking around ... the next, Dan's gone."

"We can put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships and it's what we love to do," said Franchitti, who knew Wheldon since he was a child. "And it's what we live for. And then on days like today, it doesn't really matter. I lost, we lost ... a good friend."

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Franchitti recalled Wheldon's early IndyCar years.

"He was kind of brash, but he was a charmer," Franchitti said. "He became this loving family guy. He was still charming, but he had this whole new side to him."

Wheldon's death must be a catalyst for change

Wheldon, 33, left behind his wife, Susie, and two young boys, Sebastian and Oliver. They live in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Born in Emberton, England, Wheldon raced go-karts at the age of 4. His father was a go-kart racer and his mother was the timer at a local track. He was an IndyCar rookie in 2003 and won his first Indianapolis 500 two years later.

Superstitious, the driver as an adult would tap his race car three times before getting in on the non-gear stick side, according to his IndyCar bio.

After his second Indy 500 victory in May, Wheldon talked with CNN's "American Morning" about serving as a spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association. His mother was diagnosed with the disease in 2009.

Sunday, drivers in Las Vegas did a five-lap salute in Wheldon's memory.

"Amazing Grace" played as the drivers slowly wound their way around the track.

There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated
Danica Patrick

The driver's father-in-law, Sven Behm, told CNN North Carolina affiliate WGHP that he told Wheldon to have a safe race. The competitor assured him vehicles, which routinely reached speeds in excess of 225 miles per hour, had been made safer in recent years.

"He wasn't just a great driver," said Behm. "But he was a great human being. He was always very positive."

CNN "World Sport" anchor Patrick Snell said "Dan Wheldon is a character. ... Extremely popular. Huge respect from his peers."

"There is no question that the world of motorsports has lost one of its favorite sons," Snell said Sunday night.

Twitter reaction to Wheldon's death

Wheldon's tragic passing on Sunday prompted some of motorsport's biggest names to take to Twitter in order to express their condolences and admiration for the British racer.

Marco Andretti made his IndyCar debut in 2006 and the Andretti Autosport driver spoke of his admiration for Wheldon, using his official @MarcoAndretti account to say: "I looked up to you both as a racing driver and a person/friend. You will be forever missed. RIP Dan Wheldon."

Will Power was one of the drivers involved in the multi-car crash which took Wheldon's life. The Australian Team Penske driver said: "Such a sad day... to lose a champion like Dan Wheldon...my thoughts and prayers are with Susie [Wheldon's wife] and his kids."

I have seen many fine men/racers leave us prematurely over my lifetime, it is an unfortunate part of our sport Godspeed Dan Wheldon
Emerson Fittipaldi

Danica Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008 and the 29-year-old tweeted: "There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi and the kids that god will give them strength."

Jimmie Johnson is a five-time NASCAR champion who survived a big crash of his own at the Sprint Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina over the weekend.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the Wheldon family... My heart hurts for all of the IRL community," the Hendrick Motorsports driver said.

Wheldon's compatriots in Formula One paid their respects, with 2008 drivers' champion Lewis Hamilton saying: " As a British guy, who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration.

"This is a tragic loss at such a young age. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time."

Hamilton's McLaren teammate and 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button also reflected on Wheldon's passing: "I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early '90s, a true fighter. We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy...

"I can't begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time."

Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi is a former Indy500 winner and two-time F1 champion who witnessed numerous fatalities during over two decades in motorsport.

"I have seen many fine men/racers leave us prematurely over my lifetime, it is an unfortunate part of our sport Godspeed Dan Wheldon," tweeted the 64-year-old.

The reaction was not just confined to race car drivers, with stars from across the world of sport using social media to pay their own tributes to Wheldon.

Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney said: "Sad news about Dan Wheldon. RIP. News like this puts everything into perspective."

Miami Heat's two-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James expressed his sadness at seeing a fellow sportsman lose his life in such a tragic manner.

"Prayers goes out to his whole family! I don't know him personally but he was well respected in his sport. We are all one GIANT family," tweeted James, 26.

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Race car driver Dan Wheldon spoke to "American Morning" in May, 2011, after winning the Indy 500.
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