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Wheldon mourned, remembered in English hometown

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:25 AM
EMBERTON, England -

Tucked inside a run of rolling, grassy hills two-hour's drive north of London, the little village of Emberton is quiet by nature. On Tuesday, it remained still, calm and in quiet mourning over the loss of one of its native sons, Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion who left family and friends in Emberton to make his home in St. Petersburg several years ago, died in Las Vegas on Sunday in a fiery, 15-car crash during an IndyCar race.

His death has cast a pall over this tight-knit community of approximately 600 residents.

"It's one thing to lose someone who you know is dying, but quite another to lose someone so suddenly that way,'' said Paul Wibault, an Emberton antiques dealer who spends one night a week climbing a ladder to water the flower baskets that hang from the lamp posts surrounding the tiny village square.

"That's the thing that's so sad about it. It was all so sudden. I can still remember little Danny and his dad driving off on the weekends to go to his kart races when he was a kid. It's just a very sad thing for everybody here to have to deal with.''

No one was having a harder time Tuesday than Sue and Clive Wheldon, Dan's parents. Though it's been expanded and upgraded, they still live in the same house Dan was born in 33 years ago, the one that looks out over the All Saints Church graveyard across the street.

Clive Wheldon was not up to speaking with reporters on Tuesday, a family friend, Doug Coleman, told The Tampa Tribune. He spoke the day before, telling reporters Dan was born to be a race car driver.

"He was a true champion and gentleman on and off the track,'' Clive Wheldon told reporters outside his home on Monday. "Words cannot describe how much our family will miss him. He touched so many and the world is a better place because of Dan.''

Jon Adriaenssens is one of those Dan touched. Adriaenssens owns and operates Bell and Bear, the only pub and restaurant in Emberton. His quaint eatery just a stone's throw down High Street from the Wheldon home became a gathering place for mourners on Sunday.

"It's been the talk of the whole community ever since it happened,'' Adriaenssens said of Wheldon's death, which was witnessed on television by dozens of patrons at the Bell and Bear on Sunday night. "Everybody in this village knows what Dan did and what he meant to us and to racing. Everyone here is just genuinely sad.''

And genuinely concerned. As the keeper of the first business you come upon when turning into the village, Adriaenssens has been inundated with reporters and curiosity-seekers requesting information regarding the Wheldons.

Out of respect for the family and his fellow residents, Adriaenssens said, he has steadfastly refused to offer any help, saying he and the rest of the community are trying to protect the Wheldon family during this difficult time.

"We all have to live together here and everybody feels for them,'' Adriaenssens said. "Everybody is truly concerned about their feelings. We're a very small community here, and even though Dan was very well known, we're not accustomed to getting this kind of attention.''

In many ways, Wheldon's exploits on the track were more celebrated in his adopted country of America than in England, where Formula One racing grabs all the media coverage and the IndyCar series is little known.

A winner of eight British karting titles after taking up the pursuit as a 4-year-old, Wheldon moved to the United States in 1999 after failing to secure financial backing in England for his racing career. In 2005, he became the first English driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966, then won the race for a second time this year.

Coleman, who has spent the past couple of days looking after the Wheldons while helping to prepare for the funeral service and memorial, knows the kind of attention that was often heaped upon Wheldon in St. Petersburg, where the driver had lived since 2005. As a result, he said, he knows Emberton is not the only community grieving.

"I've walked those streets (of St. Petersburg) with Dan myself,'' Coleman said. "I know how much Dan was loved by the people there. And I know how much he loved being around there.''


The Associated Press contributed to this report. (813) 259-7979

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