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Motorsport | General

Lewis Hamilton © Gallo Images

Britain mourns for Wheldon



Motorsport fans and fellow motor racers in the UK are mourning the death of one of Britain's most successful motorsportsmen Dan Wheldon who was killed on Sunday.

Struggling to hold back tears, Clive Wheldon's voice quivered as he spoke about the tragic death of his son in a fiery IndyCar crash on Sunday.

"Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do," he told reporters outside the family home in the sleepy English village of Emberton on Monday, a far cry from the high-powered world of motor racing in which his son became one of Britain's most famous sporting exports.

News of Dan Wheldon's death, at the age of 33, following a massive crash in the Las Vegas Indy 300 dominated newspaper headlines and newscasts in Britain on Monday. Sadly, it took the dramatic nature of his death to finally earn Wheldon some fame in his home country.

Two victories in the Indianapolis 500 - one of the United States' iconic sporting events - catapulted him into superstar status in America and established him as one of the few Britons to master his sport across the Atlantic.

But Wheldon was far from a household name in Britain, where Formula One is the top motor sport and IndyCar receives little coverage or recognition.

Wheldon's loss was most keenly felt among the motorsport fraternity on Monday, which has long recognised his talent starting from his youth as a kart driver, and in Emberton, a village in Buckinghamshire - a county just north of London - where he grew up and where his parents Clive and Sue still live.

"The family would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy," said Clive, reading slowly from a prepared statement and flanked by sons Austin and Ashley. "He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."

A floral tribute was placed in the heart of the village.

"R.I.P. Dan. You'll be missed champ," read one of the messages.

"I follow motor racing and it was a terrible shock when I put the television on this morning and saw what had happened," retired Emberton resident Sylvia Croxen said. "From what I know, he was very well liked."

A winner of eight British karting titles after taking up the pursuit as a 4-year-old, Wheldon left Emberton for the US in 1999 after failing to secure financial backing for his career in Europe.

Quickly embracing the American lifestyle, he soon got his chance in the IndyCar series. Titles and fame soon followed.

In 2005, he became the first English driver since Graham Hill 39 years earlier to win the Indy 500, helping him capture the overall IndyCar Championship that year. He went on to win the Indy 500 again this year after taking the lead for the first time with only seconds remaining.

"He was an extremely talented driver," said British driver Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 Formula One world champion. "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."

Beyond the US, though, there was precious little coverage of Wheldon's exploits on the track.

Even in Emberton, residents knew of him as simply a successful racing driver rather than a star of the IndyCar circuit.

"We all knew he was a good racing driver... but he moved to America a few years ago and we didn't see much of him after that," said George Cheney, a 73-year-old resident who has lived in Emberton for 10 years.

Wheldon was much better known in racing circles.

"Two victories in the Indy 500 put him in a very select group of drivers," British Racing Drivers' Club president Derek Warwick said. "Dan was a true professional and a great ambassador for the sport. He was highly focused in the way he approached his racing and a real perfectionist. With his film star good looks and athletic prowess, it was no wonder that the American public took him to their hearts."

Jenson Button, Hamilton's teammate at McLaren, was one of Wheldon's rivals in junior karting in the 1990s, describing him as a "true fighter."

"We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy," Button said on Twitter.

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