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Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame to induct Dan Wheldon and Bob Jenkins

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Dan Wheldon in 2011. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Each year, a panel of more than 140 journalists, racing historians, and participants in the sport vote to induct two new members into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. After teasing nominees Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett, Wally Dallenbach, and Jacques Villeneuve back in January, the group has selected two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon and broadcaster Bob Jenkins as the class of 2019.

Born in England in 1978, driver Dan Wheldon first proved his potential as a racer in karts, collecting three RAC British Cadet Karting Championships (1988-’90) before the age of 13. After earning championships (and numerous race victories) in a variety of European open-wheel series, Wheldon relocated to the United States to further his driving career.

In 1999, at age 21, he claimed the U.S. F2000 National Championship in his first season, putting up six victories and 11 top-10 finishes, a performance good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors as well. In 2000, Wheldon moved up to the Toyota Formula Atlantic Championship, winning two races and delivering another nine top-10s, a performance good enough to see him finish second in points, behind Buddy Rice. Indy Lights came next, and, in 2001, he finished second in this series, behind Townsend Bell, with a pair of victories and five additional podium finishes in 12 races.

In 2002, Wheldon served as a test driver for Panther Racing in the Indy Racing League, starting just the final two races of the season. When Panther lost funding for its second car in 2003, Wheldon was offered a role as a test driver with Andretti Green Racing, with the understanding he’d be promoted if sponsorship dollars were found. Instead, team driver Dario Franchitti broke his back in a motorcycle crash, giving the seat to Wheldon for most of the season.

He proved a quick learner, thanks in part to coaching from Michael Andretti. Wheldon remained with Andretti Team Green for two more seasons, finishing second in the championship in 2004 and earning the title (and his first Indy 500 win) in 2005. A move to Chip Ganassi Racing followed, and Wheldon raced there from 2006-’08, before returning to the Panther Racing squad over a contract dispute.

Panther was never a well-funded team, and his results over the 2009-’10 seasons reflect this. There were occasional podiums, but no victories, and Wheldon departed after the 2010 season. He failed to find a full-season offer for 2011, but scored a ride for the Indianapolis 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport and Curb Agajanian Sam Schmidt Motorsports. When race leader J.R. Hiildebrand crashed exiting turn four on the final lap, Wheldon took the lead and earned his second Indy 500 win.

Hugely popular with fans but without a ride for the remainder of the 2011 season, Wheldon — nicknamed “Lionheart” — stepped away from the cockpit and into the broadcast booth as a commentator for Versus. He also went to work for the IndyCar series, developing the latest Dallara chassis, which was poised to debut for the 2012 season. Late in the year, he put together a two-race deal with Sam Schmidt Motorsports that would see him race for big money — potentially, a $2.5-million bonus — at the final race of the season in Las Vegas.

There was a catch. To earn the money, Wheldon would have to start the race from last place, 34th on the grid. It was a big ask of a series regular driving a top-flight car, but for Wheldon, piloting a relatively unfamiliar car after sitting out much of the season, the odds were stacked against him. Even before the green flag flew, many drivers expressed concern over the Las Vegas track, which promoted pack racing and gave drivers the ability to drive lines almost anywhere on the track, instead of the one or two grooves available on other high-speed tracks like Indianapolis. With so many cars on the track, and a hard-charger in less-than-competitive car starting last, it was a recipe for disaster.

On lap 11, the accident that everyone feared happened. Wheldon, then in 24th place, exited turn one to find his path blocked by Charlie Kimball’s car. There was little time to react, and the front right tire of Wheldon’s car struck the left rear of Kimball’s, launching the former into the air. Wheldon’s Dallara connected with the catch fence above the concrete SAFER barrier, spun wildly down the chain link on the front straight, and struck a steel post on its right side. The structure of the cockpit was compromised, and the driver’s helmet connected with the unyielding stanchion.

The impact wasn’t survivable, and though Wheldon was extricated and flown to a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival, leaving behind a wife and two young sons at age 33. The race, which had been red flagged following the crash, was cancelled after discussion between teams and officials, but to honor Wheldon, the remaining cars ran a five-lap, three-car wide salute as the scoring pylon displayed his number 77.

Bob Jenkins

Bob Jenkins. Screen grab from video below.

Bob Jenkins began his broadcasting career co-anchoring “AgDay,” a nationally syndicated farm news report. When sports network ESPN debuted in 1979, Jenkins was hired to cover racing, with a specific focus on NASCAR, but soon branched out to cover other forms of motorsport for both ESPN and ABC. For most of his tenure at ESPN, Jenkins was the host of SpeedWeek, a news show dedicate entirely to racing in all its forms.

From 1979 to 1998, Jenkins was also a familiar voice on the IMS Radio Network, and when the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race made its debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, Jenkins acted as the point man for television coverage. He remained active with ABC and ESPN through the 2003 season, and later served in a variety of roles with the Speedway itself before returning to television broadcasting with Versus and later, the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). Jenkins retired from television in 2012, but continues to serve as both the voice of the IMS public address system and an emcee during key events.

The inductions were announced on “Founders Day,” March 20, a date that commemorates the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company in 1909. For additional information on the IMS Museum, visit IndyRacingMuseum.org.