Dan Wheldon's '06 turnaround tale recalled entering Rolex 24

MINNEAPOLIS - January 26, 2012


By Jeff Olson, Special for USA TODAY
 
 
Scott Dixon misses the unexpected phone calls in the middle of the night, the comical text messages and photos, the silly pranks and jokes.
 
But most of all, he misses his friend.
 
As Dixon and his teammates prepare to resume their successful run at the 50th Rolex 24 this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Dan Wheldon is on their minds. Wheldon, who was killed in October in a crash the Izod IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was part of the first Rolex win for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in 2006.
 
Since then, the team has won the annual 24-hour endurance race three times in five years, including last year's victory by co-drivers Joey Hand, Scott Pruett, Graham Rahal and Memo Rojas.
 
That foursome returns for Ganassi in the No. 01 car in the top-level Daytona Prototype class, with Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya driving the No. 02.
 
In 2006, Wheldon teamed with Dixon and Casey Mears to win the prestigious Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race. It wasn't easy for Wheldon, who had just one previous Rolex 24 and little experience in sports-car racing. It also was his first race with Ganassi, who had hired him in the offseason to join his IndyCar team.
 
"It was so different from what he was used to," Dixon said. "In endurance racing, you have to look after the car, but you also have to keep up a high pace. It's difficult to do, especially if you're used to just going as fast as you can for two or three hours. But Dan always wanted to learn. He was a perfectionist. He kept at it. It started as a tough transition, but after the first two stints, he was as quick as all of us. What he did that day transfers all the way to what we do six years later."
 
During Wheldon's first stint in the car, the team's engineers nearly came unglued. Monitoring telemetry from the car's on-board sensors, they noticed a heavy-handed and light-footed approach to the car's fragile gearbox.
 
"He was rock-crushing the gearbox like it was a two-hour race," said Mike Hull, managing director the Ganassi team. "When he got out of the car, he got pummeled by everyone on the timing stand about what he was doing to the car. But he didn't just go back to his motor coach to sleep or play video games. He stayed there and rehearsed what he needed to do the next time he got in the car."
 
The gearbox was badly damaged, enough that Dixon had to hold the gearshift lever after each shift to keep the car in gear during a middle-of-the-night stint. At that point, the car was two laps ahead of the field, so Hull decided to bring the car to the garage for repairs under caution.
 
"There was nothing left in that (gearbox)," he said. "We would never have made it to the end of the race if we hadn't stopped then. In fact, we probably wouldn't have lasted another 30 minutes."
 
The repairs took five minutes but cost the team two laps. Eight hours later, they were back in the lead.
 
"Dan was perfect after that, and he was faster than he had been before," Hull said. "We discovered how well we all worked together. I don't think we were supposed to win that race, and I don't think we would have won it without Dan.
 
"We had two IndyCar guys and a NASCAR guy, we weren't regulars in the series, we weren't long-distance racers, and it was our first time with that car. It was an amazing race for us."
 
Since that time, Ganassi's cars have been the class of the annual endurance race around Daytona's infield road course. The team repeated in 2007 with Montoya, Pruett and Salvador Duran, won again in 2008 with Montoya, Franchitti, Pruett and Rojas, then ended a two-year drought with last year's win.
 
But, if you ask Hull and Dixon, Wheldon's participation in the team's first Rolex 24 set the table for all ensuing victories.
 
"After that race, Dan came in my office and said, 'You know, I never thought I'd have a chance to race in that race, let alone to win it. It just made me realize that the decision I made to join this team was the right one,' " Hull said. "Everybody in every position was good at what they did that day, but Dan stood out."
 
At one point during a break from driving, Wheldon asked the team's engineers and mechanics if they needed anything.
 
Sure, they said. Food. Coffee. Soda. Blankets.
 
"It was 4 o'clock in the morning, and he's going around to all the guys on the team, taking their orders," Hull said. "That's what Dan was all about — engagement."
 
That's also what Franchitti and Dixon — who were two of Wheldon's closest friends — said they miss most. He could be playful at times (ornery, even) but he was sincere and loyal to the people around him.
 
"He was always a happy person and loving life and enjoying what he was doing," Dixon said. "I miss those crazy phone calls and the stupid text messages with funny pictures attached.
 
"The racing side of it is one thing, but the loss of my friend is another. It's tough to understand."
 
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