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Jim Oberhofer pays it forward

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When tragedy befalls us, we all hope we’re strong enough to get beyond the pain and move forward.

Such strength is found in Jim Oberhofer (Jim O), the vice president of Kalitta Motorsports. His four-car team holds the current NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car title with Del Worsham, who is mounting another late-season charge toward a repeat championship.

Jim O is the crew chief/tuner on Doug Kalitta’s Top Fuel car and minds the business of J.R. Todd’s dragster, Worsham’s and Alexis DeJoria’s Funny Car entries. The team adds a part-time Funny Car effort starting next week at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Heading into the end of NHRA’s “regular season” at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, Kalitta lies second in Top Fuel points, Todd is sixth, while Worsham has third-place points and DeJoria is tenth in the Funny Car rankings. The series re-sets after the U.S. Nationals for a six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

With all that on his plate, Jim O is taking on more.

Last year he published “Top Fuel for Life,” which chronicles his missteps in life – and racing – and the life and death of his beloved wife and partner Tammy, who lost her battle with cancer on June 18, 2013. Now Jim O has established The Tammy O Foundation to further celebrate her life; this charitable fund will donate receipts from the book to organizations dear to her heart: BRAKES, Pandas International, Racers for Christ, DRAW and the Infinite Hero Foundation.

The book is available through the Team Kalitta website, trackside at the Patron merchandise trailer or on http://www.amazon.com.

While he considered starting a 501(c)(3) charitable fund to distribute receipts from the book, Oberhofer “wanted to do this the right way. This (foundation) allows me to be able to donate to things that I know Tammy would have wanted me to donate to.” Their daughter, “Ashley O and I have made a list and we are going to continue to support as many people as we can.”

The new logo for The Tammy O Foundation was designed by Kenny Youngblood, the legendary drag racing artist, and features one of Tammy O’s favorite things, a panda. The logo will run on all four Team Kalitta machines, starting at the U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis. “Tammy was very close to Kenny’s wife, Terri, and thought the world of Kenny’s work. I knew he was the perfect person to design a logo for her foundation.”

Before and during their marriage, Tammy Oberhofer was a beloved member of the NHRA and Team Kalitta families. She worked with Kalitta Motorsports for more than two decades, beginning as the team’s public relations representative and later taking over as office manager for the team.

Jim Oberhofer’s generosity of spirit in designating the receipts of his wonderful book to his late wife’s favorite charities is not unexpected. Writing the book helped him understand the how’s and why’s of his actions before and during his wife’s illness and illustrates both the stress and the love that’s incorporated into every facet of motorsports.

By Anne Proffit

Larry Dixon plots NHRA Top Fuel return

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Larry Dixon at the 2015 Gatornationals, before he took his wild ride – Anne Proffit photo

Larry Dixon has never been one to let anything stand in his way of capturing an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing winner’s trophy. That’s how he leads his life: 300mph all the way. Three times an NHRA Top Fuel titleholder, Dixon lost his ride with Bob Vandergriff Racing at the end of last year, a group that closed shop earlier this year after losing its sponsor in death.

As he was racing towards fourth place in the final championship standings during 2015 Mello Yello NHRA campaign, Dixon also battled throat cancer – unbeknown to most everyone around him. The winner of 62 Top Fuel Wally trophies, No. 2 on the all-time list, Dixon also survived an astounding crash at the 2015 Gainesville Gatornationals, where he broke his T-4 and t-5 vertebrae, yet still managed to return to the track a couple of hours after that qualifying crash.

Larry Dixon

Dixon addressed the media shortly after breaking his back at the 2015 Gatornationals – no one knew he was also battling throat cancer – Anne Proffit photo

A man who appears to have more lives than any cat, Larry Dixon, now 49 years old, is working to get back on track; as we all know, while vertebrae may heal and cancer can be defeated, there really is no cure for racing. To satisfy his addiction, Dixon is in the midst of starting his own team, Larry Dixon Racing, with the aim of rejoining the NHRA Top Fuel wars as soon as he possibly can.

Gathering race cars, suitable equipment in Brownsburg, Ind. and keeping in shape by competing in Australia’s vibrant drag racing scene, Dixon raced to a Top Fuel victory in Australia this past June, driving a Rapisarda dragster to the win at Willowbank Raceway, competing in the City Ipswich Australian Winternationals near Brisbane. While he’d already taken the Australian national elapsed time record, this win gave the venerable competitor the country’s speed record as well.

“For the last year of my life, with cancer, a broken back and then losing my ride, everything that’s happened, winning races like we did in Australia makes all that pain go away,” Dixon said. “I’m finally 100 percent healthy now and I’m excited to go racing again. I’m so very anxious to get in a car and get after it!”

To that effect he’s put together proper equipment in his Brownsburg shop and is sure he can be competitive “out of the gate. There is a lot of excitement being generated in the drag racing world, especially in Top Fuel,” Dixon stated. “With the great TV package in place and sellout [NHRA] crowds, I don’t think the timing could be any better than now to show that right marketing partner what we can do on and off the track.”

Dixon fully understands marketing from his time working with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Their more recent sponsorship came from a smokeless tobacco company, which meant marketing to younger patrons at the drag races was difficult. He learned to dance around the prohibition on that type of advertising and learned how to market to different facets of the race-going public.

Growing up in the sport hasn’t hurt, either. The Southern California-bred son of s Top Fuel champion, Larry Dixon Sr, who cornered NHRA’s Division 7’s dragster category, the elder Dixon also gained fame when he won the 1970 NHRA Winternationals. Like many second generation racers, Dixon grew up at the track and assisted his father from an early age as they campaigned a family-owned dragster.

Later working as a mechanic for Larry Minor and Prudhomme before starting his Top Fuel driving career in 1995 with Snake, Dixon was “Rookie of the Year” and captured the first of his four Chevrolet Performance U. S. Nationals titles – quite a rookie feat.

“I’ve spent my entire life in this sport and I’m not ready to walk away just yet,” Dixon admitted. “I feel like I’m just getting started.”

In a form of racing where neither age, sex nor gender have any bearing in being successful, Dixon is ready to resume a truly successful career. With several key associates, Dixon has been collecting race cars, engines, blowers, integral parts, transporters and pit equipment as they formulate the plan to to begin Dixon’s Top Fuel operation. All that’s really left is to find an essential partner to make their latest dream a reality.

No doubt when Larry Dixon returns to the track, success will follow.

Words and Photos By Anne Proffit

Racing takes the hits

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Bryan Clauson at the 100th Indianapolis 500

This has been a tough week for racing, particularly in USAC open wheel and for NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series participants.

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Alexis DeJoria in Sonoma qualifying

Sunday a week ago, Alexis DeJoria suffered a fractured pelvis when her NHRA Toyota Camry Funny Car slammed the wall during the first round of eliminations. This occurred during the 29th Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway in northern California. She gingerly lifted herself from the race car once it stopped but was in obvious pain. DeJoria did not compete in the final leg of NHRA’s Western Swing.

This past Friday night, USAC standout Bryan Clauson was in an accident at Belleville, Kansas while racing a USAC National midget and in preparation for the Belleville Nationals on Saturday night. He wasn’t injured when he came upon a stopped car and had no way to avoid it.

Unfortunately the same wasn’t true on Saturday night when defending race winner Clauson, having just completed a run from ninth starting position to the lead of those Belleville Nationals, came upon a slower car and was vaulted, end-over-end through the third and fourth turns of the racetrack. Once stopped he was then t-boned in the cockpit area with the car lifted into the air from a side position, landing on its tires.

This time there was no escape for the 27-year-old residing in Noblesville, Indiana, who died from his injuries a day later.

Most likely we won’t again see the likes of Bryan Clauson in the racing community. A man totally dedicated to his racing art, be it on dirt or pavement, in midgets, sprints, ARCA and NASCAR stock cars and in Indy Lights and Indy cars. If it had four external and one steering wheel, Bryan Clauson would drive it, with fiancee Lauren Stewart and their two dogs, Chevy and Stewart by his side.

Clauson’s 2016 quest was to race 200 times during the calendar year and he’d completed well more than half that number, securing 27 victories. His most recent win came in Kansas last Wednesday.

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Bryan Clauson practices at Indy

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was Clauson’s third try at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and he was a prodigious practicer for the race (352 laps in practie), hoping to improve from his two previous tries. Clauson also raced in midgets and sprints leading up to this 200-lap contest and, after posting a 23rd place finish at Indy and leading three laps (from 28th on the grid) in a Dale Coyne Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda (he renamed his dog Honda for the balance of the race meeting), Clauson won again that night in Kokomo, Indiana, driving a sprint car.

Just who he was – how we’ll remember him.

Clauson’s accident occurred Saturday night; on Sunday NHRA drag racing Funny Car star Courtney Force escaped serious injury when she had an accident so similar to Alexis DeJoria’s that it was eery. The youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, racing in her first round of eliminations, had an experience that paralleled her competitor’s as her Chevrolet Camaro veered right, she corrected and the car turned left.

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Courtney Force in Sonoma qualifying

Force escaped serious injury after being sent to hospital for examination. X-rays of her left elbow and shoulder, her right knee, together with a CT scan of her head and cervical spine came back clear. She’ll be sore for a few days, no doubt, but likely won’t have to miss the next race in Brainerd, Minnesota two weekends from now.

Racing is dangerous. It’s the Cruel Sport, after all. We have to accept that injuries and death can and will occur at any racetrack – to competitors, workers, officials, media and fans. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Prayers for quick recovery to the NHRA duo of Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force. Heartfelt condolences and sympathy to the friends, family and community that surrounded Bryan Clauson with the love and support anyone needs to compete at such a high level. In any case, these injuries and this death are tearing me apart. You?

By Anne Proffit

Pro Stock standout Skillman suitcases from Elite to Gray

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Drew Skillman had great success in his rookie season with Elite Motorsports – Anne Proffit photo

NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock sophomore driver Drew Skillman is making a move. He’s changing his affiliation – just this week – heading into the NHRA New England Nationals at Epping, N.H. with Gray Racing.

Skillman, who earned his first Pro Stock victory in his Auto Club Road to the Future rookie-of-the-year season with Elite Motorsports and who currently lies fourth in the standings (best of the former four-car Elite Pro Stock squad that includes reigning two-time champ Erica Enders-Stevens, five-time PS titleholder Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Vincent Nobile), believed his momentum had been quelled with two straight first-round losses in the previous two races. He felt it was time for a change.

With sponsorship from his family group of dealerships, Skillman hopes a new Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, with Tomi Lane as crew chief, will give the youngster the opportunity to catch category leaders Jason Line and Greg Anderson, both of whom drive for Summit Racing. Line has five wins on the year, been in every final round held to date and leads the point standings while second-placed Anderson holds three victories in five final rounds.

“We just need to go out there and start having fun,” Skillman said. “We started off (the season) way better and hopefully we can be better this weekend.” After racing to his first career victory in St. Louis last fall and going to his first final round in his very first NHRA Mello Yello race at Pomona in February of 2015, along with taking three No. 1 qualifiers as a rookie, the 28-year-old from Bargersville, Ind. hoped to take his Ray Skillman Chevy Camaro farther in 2016. New rules have kind of scotched that progress.

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Drew Skillman is moving from Elite Motorsports to Gray Motorsports – Anne Proffit photo

Shortly after Skillman’s exit from Elite Motorsports was announced, owner Richard Freeman got his two-cents in on the changes in his organization. “We recognize the team hasn’t performed up to the championship standards we’re used-to here,” Freeman acknowledged. “We knew it would be a challenge to switch over to fuel injection, and it certainly has been, but we’re working harder than ever to get our performance back to where it needs to be. We will get there.”

Unfortunately, the work being performed in the team’s Wynnewood, Okla. shops wasn’t quick enough for the Skillman family; they started looking at options and, as Freeman noted, the family was “shopping around for another team. I asked Ray (Skillman’s grandfather and sponsor) point-blank if he was looking to make a move and he said they were, so I wished them luck.”

The NHRA season is only one-third complete and Freeman believes, “Despite our struggles, all four of our cars are in the Countdown to the Championship field. Now they (the Skillman family) are going to a team with two cars outside the top 10. I can’t explain that thinking or what their level of loyalty is, but these things happen, so we’ll move on.”

With their fleet down to three cars, two of them Dodge Darts and a single Camaro for Nobile, it would be intriguing to hear that the Elite Motorsports team has decided to run Mopar cars only. In his first two years of NHRA competition, Nobile had success with that manufacturer’s package and, with a win drought that has the driver, his father John and the entire team looking for answers, perhaps a return to the package that brought them success might be in order?

The NHRA New England Nationals begin with two rounds of qualifying on Friday, two more on Saturday and eliminations on Sunday. The event includes three professional categories: Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock with Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors on hiatus. At this writing, only Funny Car has the opportunity to bump with 17 entries for a 16-car field. There are 13 Top Fuel cars on the entry list and 14 Pro Stock competitors expected for the three-day race meeting.

A 60-percent chance of rain greets competitors at Epping for Friday, but that’s down to 10% on Saturday. A full Sunday’s worth of rain is forecast, reduced to 40% for Monday. The only issue is that teams have another race to contest in Englishtown, NJ next weekend, followed by Bristol, TN and a fourth consecutive contest at Norwalk, Ohio to end the month of June.

By Anne Proffit

It’s late, no time for pics but here’s my qualifying, final Monday practice report

The Verizon IndyCar Series has been looking for something to give it Big Stage Status.

It found the answer on Sunday, May 22, leading up to the 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. It’s Canadian, eh?

James Hinchcliffe’s last-man-out stealth of pole position for this monumental race was nothing if not magic. Magic! There’s also the possibility of Schmidt Peterson Motorsport capturing the 100th race in addition to its part in winning the 100th anniversary Indy 500 with Dan Wheldon – after earning that pole position five years ago with Alex Tagliani.

SPM has all three of its cars within the top 10: Hinch on pole, birthday boy Mikhail Aleshin seventh and Oriol Servia, best of the rest in 10th position. Wow, wow, wow.

Sunday’s pole run was the warmest of the race meeting to date and varying winds had many of the 33 cars having trouble figuring out how to cope with that, in particular when they were hitting speeds around 240mph heading into the first turn.

Mike Hull, who directs the Chip Ganassi four-car squad, spoke a bit while on pit road after watching reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon struggle to find speed after a 65-minute engine change following a problem in morning practice. He said that the wind really made life difficult for his four drivers – Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and rookie Max Chilton. That was evident with Dixon the top Ganassi driver in 13th, Kimball 16th, Kanaan sharing the sixth row in 18th and rookie Chilton 22nd in single-car qualifying.

Although Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden had a faster speed in qualifying, he couldn’t sustain consistent speed to retain pole position, settling for second place next to Hinchcliffe. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the front row, giving Honda two of three with a clear view of the first turn come May 29th green flag.

Honda’s abilities to shine on the biggest stage of all showed throughout the top ten starting spots, with Townsend Bell and Carlos Munoz on the second row (with 2014 IndyCar champ Will Power’s Chevrolet), Aleshin in seventh and Oriol Servia’s 10th place result, leading a Honda lockout of the fourth row with Andretti Autosport rookie Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Racing. What a change a year makes?

Everything changed – yet again – for the four-hour Monday practice session, which saw all 33 cars take to the track in frenetic fashion, anticipating weather anxieties for Carb Day on Friday. Everyone wanted to see how their cars would handle in hot, greasy weather (which is what they encountered on Monday), leading to a total of 2886 laps turned on the 2.5-mile IMS oval.

Munoz and rookie Chilton led the way with 117 laps each, fifth-placed (on the day) Pippa Mann drove 116 laps while rookie Stefan Wilson tabbed 115 tours of the historic oval. Even fast man Newgarden (227.414mph) racked up the lap total with his Chevrolet at 111 laps, performing pit stop activities in the waning stages of the session (which don’t count as full laps).

Newgarden led the entire group with his Chevrolet, with Tony Kanaan (2nd), teammate Scott Dixon (3rd), Sage Karam (4th), Charlie Kimball (6th), JR Hildebrand (8th) representing the BowTie Brand in the top ten.

It was Chevy time again at the pointy end of the field but Mann, Aleshin (7th), Rossi (9th) and Hunter-Reay were the best Honda drivers within the top 10 in all-skate practice. Hinchcliffe’s best lap placed him 17th for the day.

Aside from Jack Hawksworth’s tow-in when there was smoke and flame trailing from the rear of his A.J. Foyt Honda car, there were no incidents, which pleased everyone who was around for the Monday practice in 2015 that nearly robbed pole man Hinchcliffe of his life.

The track remains quiet until Indy Lights practice resumes on Thursday for Friday’s Freedom 100, which takes place after the Indy cars have their final, Carb Day practice. Changeable weather reports show everything from hot and sunny to hot and rainy for race day weekend, so we’ll take a pass and just wait to see what we encounter when it actually occurs!

By Anne Proffit

Honda, Hinchcliffe get overnight bragging rights at Indy

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2016 is a far cry from last year for James Hinchcliffe, who was quickest in preliminary, Saturday qualifying with Honda – Anne Proffit photo

The grid for this year’s majestic 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race will be way more diverse than last year, especially at the pointy end. Where 2015 yielded seven Chevrolet entries and two Honda’s in the nine driver/car shootout for pole position, this year it’s a heck of a lot more balanced.

While Pole Day is Sunday, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ convoluted exercise of qualifying at Indy has the top nine defined after the end of qualifying on Saturday, and those drivers and cars will compete for the No. 1 starting position. As there are only 33 entries on the grounds, the balance of the field’s starting positions will be determined by each car’s single 4-lap, 10-mile trip around the historic 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

In either instance the sequence begins with the slowest car from Saturday, beginning at 2:45PM with the three drivers that didn’t qualify today (Max Chilton after a practice crash, Pippa Mann following her qualifying wall tap and Gabby Chaves, who withdrew a 227 and waived his second try) on to 30th placed Buddy Lazier and then goes to the fastest of the 24, rookie Alexander Rossi in 10th, determining positions 10-33.

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James Hinchcliffe gave Schmidt Peterson Motorsports bragging rights heading into Pole Day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 – Anne Proffit photo

The Fast Nine shootout, which takes place late in the afternoon begins with the hot hand of Simon Pagenaud in ninth place and off to James Hinchcliffe, quickest of all in late Saturday qualifying. In the top nine are four different teams: Hinchcliffe and birthday boy Mikhail Aleshin (7th) for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Townsend Bell and Carlos Munoz on Andretti Autosport’s team, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud for Team Penske, whose 50th birthday exhibit at the Speedway’s museum is not to be missed and Josef Newgarden, sixth in Saturday time trials for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Did you notice? Five Honda cars and four Chevrolets. That’s news.

Of course the weather is vastly different today as there’s barely a cloud in the sky as I write this late morning, but winds are changeable. We’ll have to see, following two practice sessions, how this affects everyone, won’t we?

Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon

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Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon premiers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is available after the 100th Indianapolis 500 at amazon.com. Anne Proffit photo

This month of May is different from all others.

This month Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series celebrate the 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Although the first race occurred in 1911, due to war the 100th contest won’t be held until Sunday, May 29 – weather willing.

At that time 33 drivers and cars will attempt to be first to the Yard of Bricks after 500 miles of intense racing. Every seat will be taken, there will be standing room only in the immense infield and traffic will, no doubt be horrific.

As the race meeting commences, many paddock members have one foot in the present and future and another in the past of the Indy 500, thinking of the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and its winner, two-time Indy 500 victor Dan Wheldon. Wheldon won the race by being in the right place, behind leader JR Hildebrand when the Californian smacked the fourth turn wall en route to what would have been his first win. But it wasn’t – Hildebrand was credited with second place.

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Four of Wheldon’s cars for the Indianapolis 500 – Anne Proffit photo

Dan Wheldon touched everyone he met; there was a special aura about him. The fastidious Briton, whose neatness outside the car was only exceeded by his precision inside, was killed in the series’ finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway later in that year he won his second 500, lost in a spectacular fireball. Wheldon started that race last in an attempt to win a $5 million prize if he’d managed to pass the field and, once again become a surprise winner.

By the time of that race, Wheldon was no longer the carefree bachelor, long married to Susie and the father of two beautiful sons, Sebastian and Oliver. Wheldon had a bright future ahead of him at Andretti Autosport for the 2012 season. He’d been on the sidelines that year, spending much of the 2011 season proving the series’ new Dallara chassis, which was christened DW12 after his death. As expected, the tub has proved to be strong, reliable and very raceable, just like its namesake.

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Wheldon’s helmet art always incorporated “Lionheart” – Anne Proffit photo

As the two races in Indianapolis get underway, with the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis taking place this coming Saturday and the 100th Indianapolis 500 on the final Sunday in May, it’s tough not to look back at Wheldon and think what could have been. And since the race takes place – as it always has – on Memorial Day weekend, it’s time to salute the memory of Dan Wheldon.

A newly published book, Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon makes its debut at Indianapolis and will be sold only at the track during the two-race meeting; it will be available on Amazon starting May 30, even as the eventual 100th race winner poses at the Yard of Bricks for the year’s signature photographs.

Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldonis a 216-page hardback cover remembrance by his family, his close friends, his competitors around the world (who were all Dan’s friends) and media members with close ties to the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 and 2005 series champion, with photographs that may bring tears and laughter.

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Wheldon’s personality was made for television – Anne Proffit photo

The story of Wheldon, always known as Lionheart examines his life inside and outside various racing machines. The book will also bring laughter as tales are retold of a man who came of age in carbon fibre missiles.

The book, written by esteemed journalists Andy Hallbery and Jeff Olson, is an easy read and one I devoured within a single day, neglecting all else. Seduced by wife Susie’s opening, by father Clive’s explanation of how racing shaped his son’s life, by World Champion Jenson Button’s regaling of the duo’s competitive stance as kids in karts, the stories throughout this book will, I’m sure take you in.

Ever wonder why Andretti Green was so successful in the middle of the last decade? It was the camaraderie – and the ability to thoroughly tease one another, especially Dan – that made the quartet of Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta, Tony Kanaan and Wheldon such a threat on and off racetracks where the Indy Racing League competed. There are stories by each of Dan’s teammates and so, so many more.

That there were more than 60 people contributing to this book is inspiring and the stories ring true for anyone that came in contact with Dan Wheldon. The stellar list of contributors is testament to his impact on the sport.

Reading Lionheart: Remembering Dan Wheldon will help race fans understand the depths of that loss and why so many of us still, five years later, have a very difficult time dealing with his death. And also why we remember all the pranks and the joyous times shared with him and his family.

Wheldon’s move from his successful stints in junior formula at his UK home to the United States gave the driver many challenges that he overcame through innate talent and charm, winning in Champ Car Atlantic, Indy Lights and then in the Indy Racing League. Along the way he impressed everyone with his self-confidence outside the car and capabilities when racing.

To make and renew your own memories of Dan Wheldon, and to help funding for his two charities, Dan Wheldon Foundation and Alzheimer’s Association, which each get proceeds from all sales, either pick up the book during this month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or at http://www.amazon.com after the 100th Indianapolis 500 is complete. The cost is $74.99 and well worth it.

By Anne Proffit

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