Dan Wheldon

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INDYCAR Decade in Review: Best characters

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The 2010s in IndyCar will be remembered for some great race drivers, including the continued excellence of a timeless legend in Scott Dixon and the emergence of some fresh, new stars such as Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta.

It will also be remembered for the personalities of some of these drivers, who are able to take their star power with them out of the cockpit of the race car.

There are plenty of characters currently in the NTT IndyCar Series. With the emergence of NBC’s and NBCSN’s coverage of IndyCar, as well as the digital world of websites and viral videos, the 2010s was a chance for people to see the personalities of the drivers.

More so than any other decade, racing fans and even a few mainstream sports fans got a chance to experience the personality, wit and characters in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Here are NBC Sports’ picks for “INDYCAR’s Best Characters of the Decade.”

1 – James Hinchcliffe

When the 2010s began, James Hinchcliffe was making a name for himself in the Indy Lights Series because of a quirky little creation of his known as “Hinchtown.” It was his make-believe world where he served as the “Mayor” of this town. He would include “Hinchtown” in his social media and even in a press release or two

On the track, however, the “Mayor of Hinchtown” proved his talent wasn’t a fantasy. With three wins in 13 Indy Lights races in 2010, Hinchcliffe finished second in the championship to J.K. Vernay.

That earned him the second seat at Newman-Haas Racing in the IndyCar Series in 2011. He was teammates with Oriol Servia and finished 12th in the standings as a rookie. But the first-year driver was making plenty of friends in the paddock and in the grandstands because of his unique wit and engaging personality.

The next season, the “Mayor of Hinchtown” became the “GoDaddy Boy,” replacing Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport after Patrick moved over to NASCAR.

When Hinchcliffe was introduced to the crowd in pre-race introductions before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2012, he entered behind the backdrop wearing a long, brunette wig similar to Patrick’s hairstyle.

During that time, GoDaddy liked to push the envelope with its commercials featuring Patrick as a “GoDaddy Girl.” But in his first season, the company ran a campaign on who should star in the next series of commercials. As Patrick spoke, Hinchcliffe stole the spotlight as the baton twirler of a marching band.

Although Hinchcliffe never became as synonymous with GoDaddy as Patrick, but his popularity soared with the sponsor.

In 2013, Hinchcliffe backed up his character status with success on the track. He won three races in 2013 and finished eighth in the championship.

With new management at GoDaddy, the company began to phase out its racing sponsorship program and the IndyCar team was the first to get cut. So instead of being the “GoDaddy Boy,” Hinchcliffe got to surround himself with the “UDF Girls.”

His new sponsor was United Data and Fiber and it hired a full fleet of models known as the “UDF Girls” that attended every IndyCar Series race. Among their duties was to escort Hinchcliffe to pit lane and to the pre-race stage before nearly every race to help promote the team’s sponsor.

The fans loved it and so did Hinchcliffe, but after one spectacular season of attention, that sponsor left, and team owner Michael Andretti was unable to retain Hinchcliffe. In 2015, he moved over to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the Arrow/Lucas Oil entry. Hinchcliffe drove to victory at NOLA Motorsports Park in April 2015 and was preparing for his the 99th Indianapolis 500 when he faced the most serious obstacle of his life.

During practice for the Indianapolis 500 on Monday, May 18, 2015, Hinchcliffe’s Honda slammed into the Turn 3 wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A suspension road pierced the driver’s lower torso like a Shish-Kabob, severing one of the main arteries in his body.

The Holmatro Safety Crew was quick to arrive at Hinchcliffe’s wrecked car and when they reached down, they could feel a pool of blood in the driver’s seat. Hinchcliffe was pinned in the wreckage by the suspension rod.

Mike Yates, at that time INDYCAR’s Manager of Track Safety Operations and a Viet Nam War veteran, quickly went into action using a technique he learned in combat. He reached into the open wound with towels and his own hand to apply enough pressure to keep the driver from bleeding to death on the track.

Yates maintained that position as the “Jaws of Life” cut the suspension rod to free him from the cockpit. Yates, still with his fist inside the torso to stopped the bleeding, and Hinchcliffe were then transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital in time for the driver to undergo emergency surgery that saved his life.

One week later, from his hospital room, Hinchcliffe sent a videotaped message to the crowd and his fellow drivers at the annual Indianapolis 500 Victory Awards Celebration, full of his typical wit and humor.

By 2016, Hinchcliffe was back in the race car, faster than ever. He won the pole position for the 100thIndianapolis 500 and actually joked about his injury at that year’s Victory Awards Celebration by saying, “I thought I sat on the pole last year.”

Hinchcliffe did not win any races in 2016, but his remarkable comeback earned him an invitation on “Dancing with the Stars.”

For many television viewers, they were being introduced to Hinchcliffe for the first time. His personality and character were highly evident from the season’s very first show.

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Hinchcliffe and his professional dance partner Sharna Burgess made it all the way to the finals before they were defeated for the “Silver Ball” by Olympic Gold Medal winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez and her partner, Val Chmerkovskiy.

Afterwards, Hinchcliffe presented Burgess with his racing firesuit from his first race after the injury.

“You finished my story,” Hinchcliffe said, “and this is part of that story.”

In true Hollywood fashion, Hinchcliffe’s first win since the injury came in the 2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with Burgess and other DWTS competitors and celebrities in attendance.

Hinchcliffe was faced with competitive adversity in 2018 when he picked a bad day to have a bad day in Indianapolis 500 qualifications. After he was slow in his first attempt and went out on the track in a late attempt but had to return to the pits to fix an issue, Hinchcliffe was in the tech line when qualifications ended for that day.

He failed to make the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500, but instead of buying out a ride from a driver who qualified for the race, Hinchcliffe did the honorable thing and watched the race as a spectator.

Later that year, Hinchcliffe won at Iowa Speedway and was expecting a better season in 2019. But this past season, Hinchcliffe was winless, Arrow Schmidt Peterson merged with McLaren to become Arrow McLaren Racing SP and in October, the new team decided to pull Hinchcliffe from the cockpit, despite having one year left on his contract.

Hinchcliffe is currently rideless but is technically still an employee of the team. He has endured another setback with the ultimate grace, dignity and trademark smile as he continues to evaluate his future prospects.

IndyCar fans have spoken loudly about their displeasure at seeing Hinchcliffe without a ride and can’t wait to see one of their favorite “characters” back in a car soon.

2 – Dan Wheldon

Although Wheldon achieved much more success from 2004-2009, his magical personality played a key role in the 2010s. Unfortunately, he is also part of the saddest story of the decade.

Wheldon was winless in 2010 at Panther Racing and in a dispute with his team owner, left the team after that season. The popular driver from Emberton, England did not have a full-time ride in 2011, but struck a deal with Bryan Herta Autosport to compete in the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 in 2011.

Before the month of May in 2011 started, this combination was given little hope for success because at that time, Herta was struggling to get his IndyCar Series team to the track for more than the Indy 500. It was a very small operation, but once practice began for that year’s Indy 500, Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 in 2005, was among the fastest drivers every day in practice.

By qualifying sixth for the 100th Indianapolis 500, Wheldon showed the car had the speed, but questions remained whether it would be in contention at the finish.

Race Day would prove to be one of the most magical days in the history of the Indianapolis 500.

Dan Wheldon and his son Sebastian, two hours before the start of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 (Bruce Martin Photo)

A long stretch of green flag racing towards the end, combined with a variety of different fuel strategies, created a great deal of suspense as nobody really knew who was going to win this race. There were eight different leaders in the final 59 laps as one-by-one, each leader had to pit for fuel to make it to the finish.

Danica Patrick was the leader for 10 laps until she had to pit with just 12 laps to go. Unheralded Bertrand Baguette, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was the leader from Lap 198 to Lap 197 of the 200-lap contest before he came down pit lane out of fuel.

That put rookie driver JR Hildebrand in the lead with plenty of fuel to make it to the finish. It appeared nothing could stop Hildebrand from becoming a rookie winner of the Indy 500.

But as Hildebrand entered Turn 4 on the final lap, Charlie Kimball’s car was running very slowly on the apron as it was running out of fuel. Hildebrand drifted his car out of the racing lane to clear Kimball, but Hildebrand’s Chevrolet got into the marbles and crashed heading toward the checkered flag.

Chaos ensued as fans, competitors and media searched for the second-place car on the track. As Hildebrand’s crumpled car slid down the front straight with the checkered flag in hand, Wheldon’s No. 98 Honda zoomed down the front straight, passed Hildebrand’s heaping pile of parts and won the race in one of the most stunning, shocking finishes in Indy 500 history.

Despite scoring his second career win, Wheldon did not have a ride for the rest of the season. That is when then INDYCAR-CEO Randy Bernard came up with what he thought was a great promotion, but one that would prove to be fateful.

He offered Wheldon a $5 million bonus if he could win the season’s final race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway from last place. Wheldon jumped at the opportunity and got a chance to prepare for that race by competing at Kentucky Speedway in the race before Las Vegas.

By the time the INDYCAR Series arrived at Las Vegas, however, race drivers and engineers warned Bernard the entire race was a bad idea. Las Vegas Motor Speedway had an extremely high grip level and when combined with the downforce on that year’s IndyCar chassis, there was no way for the field to separate.

It created a dangerous “Pack Racing” situation where cars were all stuck together in a large pack running essentially the same speed.

It was with tremendous apprehension that the large field of 34 drivers entered the contest and their fears quickly became realized.

Nobody could pass and race away from the pack. On Lap 11, Wade Cunningham’s car got out of line and clipped James Hinchcliffe. Cunningham’s car then made contact with JR Hildebrand. As Cunningham swerved, Hildebrand ran over the back of Cunningham’s car.

What followed was total calamity and horror.

Will Power’s car went airborne. Then, Wheldon’s car went airborne and into the catchfence. Wheldon’s helmet struck one of the support poles of the tire fence and the driver was killed.

There were 15 cars involved in the crash and the fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was severely damaged. After a two-hour delay, Wheldon’s death was officially announced and INDYCAR cancelled the race after an emergency driver’s meeting with Bernard.

The drivers who remained decided to pay one final tribute to their fallen comrade. The 19 drivers who survived the crash returned to their cars. Crew members stood silently in formation in their pit boxes. The scored pylon was turned off except for the No. 1 position that displayed Wheldon’s car number atop the board.

The remaining cars formed rows of three-abreast. The pace car led the field back onto the track with bagpipes playing “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace” over the loudspeakers for five tribute laps followed by a final checkered flag.

To add to the cruel irony of the day, Wheldon had signed a contract earlier that day with team owner Michael Andretti to return to Andretti Autosport as Danica Patrick’s replacement for 2012. Patrick was leaving the series to become a fulltime NASCAR competitor.

The emotion of Wheldon’s death hovered over INDYCAR for the offseason and for much of the following season. Controversy also grew over why the race was held in the first place? If Bernard had listened to the complaints and the drivers.

Bernard remained INDYCAR CEO for one more year. He left his role after a contentious Hulman & Company Board of Directors Meeting in October 2012 after team owners and drivers aired their grievances to Chairman of the Board Jeffrey Belskus.

Wheldon’s death was felt by the fans and competitors for years to come, but his legacy remains as one of INDYCAR’s most popular drivers and his ability to be quite the character.

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Wheldon had the unique gift to make everyone he encountered feel as if he were their best friend.

Shortly after he won the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Wheldon had dental veneers during the following offseason. When he showed up at the track for the 2006 season, his ever-present smile nearly glowed in the dark.

Wheldon was always smiling. He was also friendly. He always posed for pictures with the fans and most often agreed to interviews from the media.

He was quite the jokester and loved to pull pranks on his buddies Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta. Many of the pranks pulled on each other cannot be repeated to a family audience, but they were humorous, nonetheless.

Wheldon’s career was cut short but he achieved 16 IndyCar wins including two victories in the Indianapolis 500 and an NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2005.

His best racing decade came in the 2000s. He raced in just one full season and two races into 2011. But his character and personality made Dan Wheldon timeless.

3 – Helio Castroneves

The Team Penske driver became a star in the previous decade and is the only driver to win two Indianapolis 500s in his first two attempts in 2001 and 2002. He added a third Indy 500 win in 2009 and entered the 2010s as one of IndyCar’s most recognizable names, thanks in part to his success on the track and by winning “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007.

Since 2018, Castroneves has been a regular in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Series for Acura Team Penske but has competed in both NTT IndyCar Series races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past two seasons.

Time may be running out on Castroneves to become a four-time Indy 500 winner, joining the likes of AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, but the popular driver from Brazil is a fan favorite with his perfect hairstyle, flashy smile and his trademark sense of humor.

There are times when he creates his own vocabulary, too, butchering words. He can sometimes be a combination of Dezi Arnez and “Fez” from “That ‘70’s Show.”

Castroneves can be a comic and that is why former driver and current IndyCar team partner Jimmy Vasser has quipped, “Helio Castroneves is my favorite actor.”

Castroneves scored eight of his 24 career victories in the 2010s and finished second in the championship in 2013 and 2014, third in 2016, fourth in 2010 and 2017 and fifth in 2015.

Castroneves has captured magic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and remains a fan favorite. Although his status for the 104th Indianapolis 500 in 2020 has not been determined, the pesky driver continues to lobby Team Penske team owner Roger Penske for one more chance at winning a fourth Indy 500.

If that happens, expect Castroneves to once again charm the fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4 – Will Power

When Will Power isn’t racing, the driver from Toowoomba, Australia likes to bang on his drums all day. The Team Penske driver, in fact, is an accomplished driver who has actually been on stage as guest drummer at various rock concerts.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

If the racing career or music career didn’t work out, Power’s dry wit and unique sense of humor would be well-suited for comedy, as long as it was in the Steven Wright genre.

Get to know Will Power, and the Team Penske driver is hilarious in his own, unique, quirky way. His post-qualifying and post-race media conferences can be a trip as he seemingly babbles at times incoherently. It’s like IndyCar’s version of Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra.

Those who know him best can figure out what he is saying but those who don’t are often befuddled.

Power’s character has mellowed over the decade. Credit wife, Liz, young son, Beau, a 2014 NTT IndyCar Series championship and a win in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in 2018 for calming down the Australian.

Earlier in his career, though, this was one hot-tempered Aussie. When Power was triggered, he often lashed out at fellow drivers and a media member or two if he didn’t like their questions.

His most famous moment of rage came at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2011. With rain falling on the track, INDYCAR Race Control at that time ordered a restart, even though the Pace Car had to run its windshield wipers during the caution laps.

Of course, once the green flag waved, cars began to lose control and Power’s Team Penske ride was involved in a crash and out of the race.

As the TV cameras followed Power’s storming walk back to his transporter, the driver turned to the tower where Race Control was located and gave the “Double Bird Salute.”

Unfortunately for Power, the whole incident was caught on TV.

It wasn’t the first or the last time Power’s emotions were met with a fine. But for the most part, Power is one of the most unique characters in the series. He is normally in a good mood and loves to see how far he can get someone to believe an outrageous tale.

He once told a media member that just for fun, he loves to fight. What followed was some elaborate fighting tales and the media member actually believed him.

Finally, Power burst out laughing and told the media member he was joking.

“I don’t like to fight, I’m just joking with you,” Power said.

Power’s tales are often tall and always outrageous.

He is an undeniable character of the decade, but he is also one of INDYCAR’s most successful drivers of the 2010s.

Thirty-one of Power’s 35 career IndyCar wins have come in the decade of the teens.

And the Australian has had quite a bit of fun in the process.

5 – Danica Patrick

Although Patrick spent most of the decade in a NASCAR stock car, she began the 2010s as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series competitor for Andretti Autosport.

Regardless of her record, Patrick certainly captured the attention. She had the unique ability to achieve celebrity status in the mainstream world.

While other drivers were out winning races and contending for championships in relative obscurity, Patrick was hosting awards shows, walking the red carpet and appearing on magazine covers.

Bruce Martin Photo

She was the “Glamour Girl” of sports and turned it into a commodity. Patrick understand the value of her “brand” and it served her well. Even when she didn’t do well on the race track, she got plenty of attention.

Although her INDYCAR record had just one victory, it was a historic victory, nonetheless. It occurred at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 and to this day she is the first and only female driver to win a race in IndyCar.

No female has ever won a race in NASCAR Cup or Formula One, although there have been numerous female race winners in Drag Racing and Sports Car competition.

Patrick remains the most competitive driver over a lengthy career in NTT IndyCar Series history. She also enjoyed a seven-year career in NASCAR that included five full seasons at the Cup level. She had seven top 10 finishes and one pole in 191 NASCAR Cup starts.

She enjoyed much more success in an IndyCar career that ran from 2005-2011 with one win, seven top-three finishes and three poles in 116 starts.

When it became apparent that sponsorship was not available for a full-season effort, Patrick walked away from the sport on her terms by running the 2018 Daytona 500 and the 2018 Indianapolis 500 as the final two races of her career.

There would be no storybook ending, however as Patrick crashed out of both the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in 2018.

Patrick’s “Star Power” remains a commodity and NBC added her to the network’s first-ever telecast of the Indianapolis 500 in 2019. She served alongside host Mike Tirico on the telecast.

She continues to live the life of celebrity as the longtime girlfriend of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Patrick’s ability to control the spotlight certainly earns her a position as one of INDYCAR’s “Characters of the Decade.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter @BruceMartin_500