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Wheldon's adopted city of St. Pete recalls 'wonderful person'

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:17 AM

St. Petersburg mourned the loss of an adopted son Monday, a day after famed race-car driver and Snell Island resident Dan Wheldon perished in a fiery IndyCar crash during a Las Vegas race Sunday afternoon.

Wheldon, 33, moved to St. Petersburg six years ago from his native England and was regularly seen riding a scooter through downtown or walking with his wife and children along a residential street near his home, chatting up neighbors along the way.

A two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, including this year, Wheldon died in a 15-car pileup Sunday afternoon on Lap 13. The crash injured three other drivers.

As the shockwaves of the news reached St. Petersburg an outpouring of emotions flooded social media sites, including Legacy.com which posted his obituary. Comments came in from all as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, and Auburn, Maine. They came from Atlanta and Los Angeles. Many were penned by locals who had met Wheldon, not as fawning fans, but as neighbors.

Linda Tankersly, 60, of Safety Harbor has been an IndyCar fan since she was a little girl. She's been to the last 12 Indianapolis 500 races, she said, and every Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Wheldon was more than just a great race-car driver, she said.

"He was a wonderful guy," she said Monday morning. "I'm overwrought right now. I had four tickets for the race in Las Vegas, but I couldn't go, which is probably a good thing."

She watched the race on the television, she said, and was overcome with emotion watching the crash and hearing that one of her favorite drivers was gone.

She said she had met Wheldon several times and was impressed with his personality and charm.

"The first time I met him, he was over at Macy's here in St. Petersburg for the Grand Prix," she said. "He was doing an autograph session and when it came my turn, I introduced myself and they took photos right away. He didn't like way took picture looked, so he stood up and put his put arm around me they took another picture."

She said she understands drivers live a perilous life.

"There are a lot of accidents," she said. "It's just something you have to accept. It's a very dangerous sport."

Wheldon bought a house on St. Petersburg's Snell Island in 2005 and moved here with his wife, Susie, after winning the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Indy 500 that year.

He liked the area, the weather and proximity to the water and decided this was the place to raise his growing family. Wheldon and his wife have two young boys: 2-year-old Sebastian and 7-month-old Oliver.

"I love it here," Wheldon, who was from Emberton, England, said in a 2009 interview. "I don't think I will ever not have a house in St. Pete."

It didn't take long for Wheldon to give back to the community he adopted.

He and his wife raised money for Bayfront Medical Center's Baby Place floor in St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital. The center named a suite on the floor the Dan and Susie Wheldon Suite. The Wheldons delivered both their babies there.

"Dan Wheldon was a great champion – both in sport and for his community," said a statement from Bayfront Medical Center. "Dan enthusiastically gave back, using his influence and reach to build awareness and philanthropy for our program. He lent his image and contributed significant amounts in recognition of the special connection and experience his family has with Bayfront Baby Place.

"He will be missed," the statement said, "but his legacy of philanthropy will help ensure he is never forgotten."

The affection Wheldon had for St. Petersburg was reciprocated.

In June, St. Petersburg and the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg honored Wheldon after he won the Indy 500. After the formal presentations were done, Wheldon spent more than two hours signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

The adopted city officially will remember Wheldon on Thursday. City officials said Monday they will issue a "resolution of bereavement" at Thursday's 3 p.m. city council meeting at city hall.

Funeral arrangements are pending, said Tim Ramsberger, general manager and vice president of Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The IndyCar racing circuit and Honda Grand Prix are waiting to hear what the family wants before offering to participate in those arrangements.

He said the local outpouring of emotion is overwhelming.

"There's been a tremendous expression of grief and love for Dan," Ramsberger said Monday afternoon, "from race fans and people who knew him casually."

Ramsberger said it was Wheldon's personality more than his racing prowess that drew the admiration of St. Petersburg residents who crossed his path.

"He was very approachable, affable, quick-witted and quick with a smile," Ramsberger said. "He was a guy who would stop to shake your hand, take a photo, or sign an autograph. He was wonderful person, he loved his family, he was a good husband and a good father; that's best thing you can say about him. And that he was a fantastic race-car driver."

Wheldon's neighbor Trish Thomas said the couple was friendly and polite, "and I think the saddest part was knowing that they had just reached such a good part in their life and when I saw that car flying, I thought oh, no; it's over.

"They were such a nice little family," she said. "It's so sad."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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