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Mourners say farewell to Dan Wheldon

23 October 2011

Hundreds of mourners arrived to pay their respects to Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon at a funeral service at the First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg, the Florida city that he had made his home in the US with his wife Susie and their two children, 2-year-old Sebastian and 7-month-old Oliver.

Wheldon's father Clive carried Dan's familiar racing helmet, as IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan acted as pallbearers for the coffin along with Wheldon's three brothers Austen, Elliott and Ashley.

A letter written by Susie Wheldon and read out on her behalf during the service said that "I keep thinking this is a bad dream ... My heart is scattered in a million pieces."

Another letter, written by Dan's sister Holly and read out at the service by Scott Dixon, spoke of Wheldon's love and passion for racing: "My brother was born to race ... Dan without racing is like a cup of tea without milk, and Dan loved tea."

Susie Wheldon's own letter offered a similar anecdote from their first meeting at a PR shoot in 2003, when she had asked him what his back-up career plan was if motor racing didn't work out for him: "I don't have one," Wheldon had replied.

Team owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske were among the mourners, along with many of the drivers that Wheldon had competed against over the years in IndyCar.

"The past week's been a tough one," admitted Graham Rahal. "It really puts it all in perspective."

"It's almost indescribable," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had just learned that he was to be Wheldon's team mate at Andretti Autosport in 2012 in a deal just agreed before the fateful Vegas weekend. "This is something that I never really experienced in my life."

Two drivers who went to hospital after the 15-car wreck at Vegas were also present, with Will Power clearly suffering from the after effects of a painful back sustained after flying through the air in a manner terrifyingly close to that which claimed Wheldon's life. Pippa Mann also attended the service, with her right arm bandaged after having surgery for burns.

Wheldon's best man from his marriage to Susie in 2008, Adrian Sussmann, spoke about Wheldon's pursuit of perfection in everything he did, which culminated in his second Indy 500 victory with a scratch team put together by Wheldon's former team mate Bryan Herta, which had achieved the impossible feat of beating the series 'big boys'.

"It was a finish that even Hollywood couldn't have written," said Sussmann. But he added that Wheldon had discovered so much more to life than simply racing success in recent years: ""His happiness came from the fact that he had everything in life that money can't buy," he said.

The service also featured music from country star Wynonna Judd, Dario Franchitti's sister-in-law, including a rendition of "Amazing Grace" - a hymn that had also hauntingly sounded out at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday as the IndyCar field paid a silent five-lap salute to the fallen hero at the end of the tragic day's events.

Many of those attending the funeral flew back to Indianapolis in the evening, in time for a televised public memorial service organised by IndyCar to celebrate the life and successes of the 33-year-old racer. Coverage will be streamed online through indycar.com and is due to start at 4pm local time (9pm BST) on Sunday, October 23.

A memorial website has been set up by the internet services company GoDaddy.com, who were expected to be Wheldon's sponsor for a full season of racing in IndyCar in 2012. There will also be an auction of sporting memorabilia benefiting the Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund. Originally sparked by Graham Rahal's offer to auction his own race helmet, it has rapidly snowballed to include items from across motor racing series including NASCAR and MotoGP as well as from stars of NFL, NBA, Tour de France and the world of entertainment.


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