April 17 in Motorsports History: Wheldon gets his first win

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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.

Dan Wheldon celebrates following his victory following the 2004 Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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. 

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”