Exclusive interview with Susie Wheldon: "My boys, grown up racing, as if Dan were here"

Columns: Interview
Motorsport can sometimes be a source of grief, but also a ground for rebirth and great identity recognition. The story of Dan Wheldon's family, his wife Susie, and their two young sons Sebastian and Oliver has become a documentary just released and already winning awards, "The Lionheart." We met Susie Sheldon to talk about Dan and her kids, emerging drivers in a very particular scenario. (fm)

When we think about parents - especially dads - in our sport, we don't always think of something nice to tell. For many reasons, what starts as a passion to pass on ends up becoming an absolute pursuit of results in which personal growth takes a back seat and much of the educational potential of the sport is lost. However, memorable stories of fathers and sons in motorsport abound, and in this overall picture, that of Dan Wheldon and his two boys is certainly unique. As many will know, the English driver - a well-known kart racer in Europe at the time of Pantano, Button and Co. also winner of a World Cup in Suzuka in Formula A, and of a European Championship race in Formula A at Mariembourg in 1995 - tragically lost his life in 2011 in a terrible crash during an IndyCar race on the oval circuit of Las Vegas. At the time, Dan, who had met and married Susie in the USA, was already the father of two: Sebastian and Oliver, just born. Let Susie speak to us about how things have gone from there onwards and how sometimes it's tough to reconcile the reality of losing Dan in motorsport and experiencing firsthand having both sons engaged in the same career as their father, and how she realized that perhaps this is the only way the boys have had - and will have - to grow up with their father by their side.

What was the trigger to let your kids sitting on a gokart, and when exactly that happened?
«There was never a grand plan for the boys to start racing. Dan obviously spoke about it and how he wanted the boys to race, but we never had anything planned out. They were so young when Dan passed, Sebastian was 2 and Oliver 7 months old. I knew that I would always give them the opportunity, but ultimately it would be up to them if they wanted to follow the same path as their dad. When Sebastian was about 4 years old he was given a kart. We went to the local track near our home in St. Petersburg, FL and he started logging laps, but it was nothing serious. Even though it was quite relaxed, I could tell that he loved it straight away and had a natural instinct about how to handle the kart. From there we just tested until he turned 5 and was allowed to compete in some national level events. I realized pretty quickly how intense the karting scene can be and how much pressure some of these kids are under at such a young age. I knew that if my boys were to follow this path they would have a lot of pressures and expectations on them already because of who their dad was and I didn't want to expose them to all of that too soon. So I decided to just focus on testing and competing at the club level. We didn't go back to the national karting scene until much later...when Sebastian was almost 10.»

From the outside, yours seems a harsh story: racing implied something tragic for your family, but instead of giving up, you have chosen to keep on love what Dan loved since forever, wearing a helmet and race. I'm sure it's hard for some people to understand, especially for those who don't come from a motorsport background. Racing has taken from me the most important person in my life, but it has also given me so much. How do you reconcile those two things?
I find a lot of comfort at the track. When people ask, "How can you let your boys race after what happened? Aren't you afraid?" My answer is: it has never been my decision, it was always up to them. How can I put my fears on them if this is something they want? Ultimately, it is my unwaivering love for Dan that has kept me on this path and the love for my boys and watching them pursue their passion. This is what any parent wants.

Let’s recap the highlights of your kids in karting and what's going on for 2024
«Both of the boys started racing at the national level in 2019 with JC Karting, under the direction of Leo Colman. They achieved good results and won many races. Oliver won the SKUSA Winter Series Championship in 2020 (micro class) and the ROK Florida Winter Tour in 2020 (micro class) and in 2021 (mini class). Both boys won the SKUSA Winter Series Championship in 2022...Sebastian in the junior category and Oliver in mini. In 2021, Andretti Global announced the boys as junior development drivers. It has been amazing to have their support and guidance. Obviously, Michael Andretti has extensive knowledge in the business, as well as being a legend of the sport. It is also a very special relationship for the boys, as this was the first team Dan drove for when he made it to IndyCar in 2003. And he won his first Indianapolis 500 with Andretti in 2005. It feels like a full circle moment. Through Andretti, the boys also have tremendous support through Gainbridge.In 2023, Sebastian moved into F4 cars and competed in the Skip Barber Racing Series. He won 6 races and collected 13 podiums, ultimately securing the championship title. In 2024 he will compete in the USF Juniors Championship with VRD under the direction of team owner Dan Mitchell.  The season was kicked off in February at Sebring International Raceway with the YACademy Winter Series where Sebastian won pole and Race 1. He went on to collect a P3 (Race 2) and P2 (Race 3) finish. Round 2 moved to Homestead-Miami Speedway where he picked up another podium (Race 1, P2). Oliver began testing the F4 car at the end of 2023 and will move to compete in the Skip Barber Racing Series Championship this year. The first race has been at Sebring International Raceway the first weekend of march.

What did you enjoyed in their karting years?
«I will always look back on the boys' karting years with so much gratitude. We were able to spend so much time together and watching them develop into the young men they are now, both on and off the track, has been one of my greatest joys. They have so many mannerisms that remind me of their dad, which become especially obvious at the race track. Their facial expressions, gestures, the way they prepare to get into the kart, putting on their helmet, etc.,...little nuances where I am reminded of Dan and the way he approached the race car. And it's in those moments where I find the most comfort and reassurance that this is exactly where the boys are meant to be. There is no doubt that this is their path.One of my favorite memories at the track was at Homestead in 2022 during the SKUSA Winter Series Championships. Both boys won their final races on the same day and went on to both secure the Winter Series Championship in their respective classes.»

Oliver is very young, just turned 13 yrs old. In Europe the rules are different and 15 yrs old it's needed to drive a race car: don't you also think it can be a little early to switch from karting to cars?
«Oliver turned 13 in March and he didn't start testing the F4 until the end of last year. I think as a parent or driver coach, you have to decide what your child is ready for. Karting gives a great foundation to build on in motorsports, but it doesn't always translate to cars in the same way. A child who is always winning in karts might not adapt so easily to cars and vice versa. It might not be the right timeline for everyone, but that's one of the great things about racing in the US...it gives opportunities to move through the ranks of junior formula as early as 13 years old if someone is ready.»

What's the best thing racing gave you in these years and what do you wish to your guys? What Dan would think if he was here?
«Racing offered my boys and I healing in a way. It has given me purpose and the motivation to keep going after Dan died. And for Sebastian and Oliver...racing has given them the opportunity to feel connected to their dad. There is no place they can feel closer to Dan than when they are on the race track. My wish for them is to remain passionate and hungry as they pursue their dreams. I ultimately want them to be happy in whatever they do. I know Dan would be so proud of them, as any father would be. Sebastian and Oliver are Dan's legacy. For them to carry on that legacy is the greatest gift to him. I know that if Dan were alive, the boys would still be on the same path they are on now. It might look a little different, but ultimately the destination would be the same.»

Created by: fmarangon2 - 30/03/24

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