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Sunday, October 23, 2011
Updated: November 17, 1:42 PM ET
Wheldon remembered fondly

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The legacy of Indy car driver Dan Wheldon was laid peacefully to rest Sunday afternoon in a public memorial service in downtown Indianapolis.

Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and the 2005 IZOD IndyCar Series champion, was killed one week ago in a multicar crash during the Las Vegas Indy 300 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On Sunday, an estimated 4,000 friends, fans and co-workers poured into Conseco Fieldhouse to pay respects to a complex figure they remembered as a great driver, teammate and family man.

They marveled at his bravery, laughed at his naivety and poked fun at his fastidious nature.

Many tears of sadness were shed over the past week in Wheldon's memory. Sunday was about celebrating a life that was in many ways larger than most.

Wheldon's managers, Mickey Ryan and Adrian Sussman, praised their client's remarkable transformation from a cocky skirt chaser into a dedicated family man. Wheldon leaves a wife, Susie, and two young sons.

"Dan changed a lot between his two wins at Indianapolis," Sussman said. "We partied until 4 o'clock in the morning in 2005, but the 2011 win was entirely different. It was all about family."

Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull gave Wheldon credit for helping put the team into position to win four consecutive IndyCar Series championships with drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

Wheldon drove for TCGR from 2006 to 2008, winning six races for the team.

"We sucked on ovals before Dan came on board -- we were terrible," Hull said. "Dan was the best oval driver we had since Arie Luyendyk. He's the only guy I know who could drive a car with 100 pounds of left-front cross weight. That was impressive.

"If the car was right, he used to say that driving the short chutes at Indy was like driving like a slick track," Hull said. "He had that kind of gentle touch on the wheel."

At Andretti Green Racing from 2003 to 2005, Wheldon was the kid brother who ended up beating his more experienced teammates Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta.

Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta
Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta talk about their friend Dan Wheldon and the way he used to celebrate race victories.

"If you're here today, you felt a connection to Dan, whether as a friend, family or teammate," Kanaan said. "The goodbye we are saying today is final, but our friendship won't end."

"Dan would be so proud of the turnout today," Franchitti said. "He'd have said, 'I told you, Bro -- I'm big in Indy!'"

Wheldon was raised in Emberton, England, but he moved to America to race in 2000 and he later made St. Petersburg, Fla., his adopted home.

Still, he felt a special connection to Indianapolis and its famous speedway and that bond is unlikely to fade after his death.

The local flavor in Sunday's tribute included appearances by the Indianapolis Children's Choir and the Gordon Pipers, the bagpipe troupe that is an integral part of Indianapolis 500 pre-race tradition.

Reba McEntire, The Band Perry and Garth Brooks also performed at the Indianapolis memorial.

"We've all been sad the last seven days, but Dan gave us 33 years of living and 33 years of things to celebrate," Franchitti said.

The four-time IndyCar Series champion related that Wheldon commissioned championship rings for each of his AGR teammates when he won the 2005 title.

"It's the only time I'll ever wear this," Franchitti said, showing off the hardware. "It's also the only time I'll wear white shoes like this, too."

The AGR teammates talked about Wheldon's penchant for practical jokes and cited several examples of how he was on both the giving and receiving end of such pranks. Wheldon's flamboyant style and sense of fashion was also a common theme in Sunday's celebration.

"It was good to get everyone together in St. Pete the last couple of days [a public memorial was held there on Saturday] and his style got a lot of discussion," Franchitti said. "He wore the tightest race suit I've ever seen and I'm surprised he fathered two kids, to be honest."

Speaking about the $40,000 worth of dental work Wheldon had done a few years ago, Herta added: "The guy was trying to make up for an entire country's dental problems in one mouth!"

"He's the only guy with two sets of teeth on the Borg-Warner Trophy!" chipped in Franchitti, referring to the iconic trophy presented to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Turning more serious, Herta concluded: "He had become a complete person and his happiness spilled over onto everyone and everything he touched.

"Dan's legend lives on in each and every one of us."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.