EMBERTON, ENGLAND (AP) - Struggling to hold back tears, Clive Wheldon’s voice quivered as he spoke about his son, “a true champion and a gentleman.”
“Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do,” he said Monday outside the family home in the village of Emberton, a far cry from the high-powered world of auto racing in which his son became one of Britain’s most famous exports.
News of Dan Wheldon’s death at 33 following a massive and fiery crash at the Las Vegas Indy 300 dominated newspaper headlines and broadcasts in Britain on Monday.
Two victories in the Indianapolis 500 established him as one of the few Britons to master auto racing 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.
Wheldon’s loss was felt most sharply Monday in the auto racing fraternity, which has long recognized 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 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 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 U.S. 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 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 U.S., though, there was precious little coverage of Wheldon’s exploits on the track. Even in Emberton, residents knew of him as simply a successful driver rather than a longtime star of the IndyCar circuit.
“We all knew he was a good racing driver … but he moved to America a few years and we didn’t see much of him after that,” said George Cheney, 73, who has lived in Emberton for 10 years.