ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – On Thursday, the Dan Wheldon Memorial was dedicated at Dan Wheldon Way which is Turn 10 of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race course.
On Sunday, Wheldon’s car made it to victory lane.
It was on Sept. 16, 2011 Wheldon had signed a contract with team owner Michael Andretti to take over the GoDaddy.com car from the departing Danica Patrick. Later that day, the popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who lived with his family in St. Petersburg was killed during IndyCar’s “Black Sunday” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in one of the most horrific crashes in IndyCar history.
A few weeks later, James Hinchcliffe was sitting in his home in Indianapolis “contemplating life – thinking about University.” after his ride at Newman-Haas Racing was parked.
That is when the phone rang. It was Andretti offering him the car that would have been Wheldon’s.
On Sunday, it all came together as Hinchcliffe made a fearless dive into turn one on Lap 85 to take the lead away from three-time Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves. He would stand in front for the final 26 laps to score his first-ever IZOD IndyCar Series victory and give GoDaddy.com its first-ever win – something that celebrity icon Patrick could not pull off for the sponsor.
Add Hinchcliffe’s name to the Dan Wheldon Memorial and its list of winners of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“Certainly I was shocked to get the call, if I’m honest,” Hinchcliffe said. “It wasn’t that long after the end of the 2011. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that somebody had to drive that car. I was kind of floored when I got that car that my name was on the short list. It was quickly established that they wanted me in the car and I very much wanted to be in the car, with essentially having lost my ride at Newman/Haas when they closed.
“It hit me because it was a tremendous amount of responsibility I felt to honor Dan and do a good enough job to honor what he would have done in this car.
“So to get the first win here in his hometown with his family here, who I’ve grown quite close to, it means so much more, to be honest. There’s nowhere that I would have rather had my first win I don’t think in this car than right here in St. Pete.”
Wheldon’s widow, Suzi, waved the green flag to start the race and his younger sister, Holly, was in Victory Lane to congratulate the winner afterwards.
“Holly and I are quite close,” Hinchcliffe said. “My girlfriend and her have become best friends. It’s just so awesome. They’ve been so nice to me, so accepting of me being in this car. They feel like family now, they really do. It was a huge relief for me because before it was announced I guess someone let the Wheldons know. I got a text from Holly saying, ‘Is it true you’re going to be in that car? I was so glad she texted me because I wanted to talk to her about it. She said the Wheldons couldn’t think of anybody better and they’re fully supportive of you.
“I said, ‘My trailer is your trailer, this is your car as much as anything.’ They’ve been huge supporters of me.”
The popular driver from Toronto became the first Canadian to win an IndyCar race since Paul Tracy won a Champ Car Series race at Cleveland in June 2007. His previous best finish was third at Long Beach and Milwaukee last year. He finished fourth in only other start at St. Pete in 2012 and his first victory came in his 32nd IZOD IndyCar Series start. It was the 44th victory for Andretti Autosport.
And Hinchcliffe was able to forge his own identity in the GoDaddy.com car – a racing machine that was so connected to its previous driver who bolted the series for NASCAR after the 2011 season.
“Certainly following Danica was a big ask,” Hinchcliffe said. “I guess we put a lot of effort into making sure it wasn’t the guy driving Danica’s car. We really wanted to make it our own by playing off her last year, things like that. I hope now, especially after things like this, I don’t hear, ‘You’re the guy driving Danica’s car.’ Hopefully when we get to the races this year, it will be, ‘That’s Hinch’s car.’
“I can’t tell you how much that means. They obviously took a big gamble on me. I’d only been in the series a year. We won Rookie of the Year, but hadn’t done tremendous things. For Andretti and Go Daddy to take that chance on us…we were in shouting distance of a win a few times last year. It was that last piece that was missing.
“Today, beginning of the season, first race, to get that out of the way, get the Go Daddy car in Victory Lane for the first time, it’s awesome. Hopefully it’s a match they’ll carry on for a number of years to come.”