Dan Wheldon’s first IndyCar win at Motegi on April 17, 2004 likely did not come to as a surprise to many.
The 25-year-old Briton had previously demonstrated that he had the talent to compete with the big boys. His road to the top of the podium just took a little longer than expected.
Wheldon came to the United States in 1999 to race in USF2000, where he won the championship with six wins in his rookie season. In the following two years, Wheldon competed in Atlantics and then CART’s Dayton Indy Lights series, finishing second overall with two victories in both years.
While his initial goal was to compete in CART, Wheldon was unable to find a ride in the series. He made the decision race to the rival Indy Racing Leauge in 2002, driving in the final two races of the season for Panther Racing.
Wheldon then took up the opportunity to race for part-time Andretti-Green Racing two races into the 2003 season when Dario Franchitti sustained a non-racing injury. When team owner Michael Andretti decided to retire following that year’s Indy 500, Wheldon was retained for the remainder of 2003.
While his start to the season was filled with bad luck and five DNFs, Wheldon improved towards the end of 2003, ending it with three consecutive top-five finishes.
Wheldon was resigned by Andretti for 2004, and scored his first pole position before finishing third in the second race of the year at Phoenix.
Finally, in the third race of the year at Twin Ring Motegi, Wheldon was victorious.
Starting the race from the pole, Wheldon dominated the Indy Japan 300, leading 192 of 200 laps en route to his first career victory.
The win had been a long time in the making for the driver who moved to the U.S. five years prior to chase his dream of becoming a professional race car driver. It was also the first victory for Honda at the track they owned and maintained.
“I think an absolutely awesome day for myself to win my first race,” Wheldon said. “For Honda, I think they kicked butt, and I think they deserve this more than any other engine manufacturer in the world.”
Wheldon would go on to win two more times in 2004 and finish second in the overall point standings. The following year, he won six races, including the Indy 500 en route to winning the series championship.
Wheldon went on to become one of the best drivers of his generation, capturing a victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2006 and another win at Indy in 2011. Sadly, Wheldon lost his life in a crash during the 2011 IndyCar finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Also on this date:
1983: Gordon Johncock won the Kraco Dixie 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 25th and final victory of his career. The race was also the last one for CART at the facility. Open-wheel racing would not return to the state of Georgia until the IRL raced at Atlanta from 1998-2001.
1987: Romain Grosjean was born in Geneva, Switzerland. Grosjean made his Formula debut with Renault in the 2009 European Grand Prix. He has since gone on to compete in 163 more GPs, also driving for Lotus and Haas.
1994: Michael Schumacher won the Pacific Grand Prix at Japan’s Tanaka International Circuit. Sadly, the race was the penultimate one for Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in the F1’s next race at Imola.