Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: Emotional ‘The Lionheart’ Paints Portrait of Dan Wheldon

Like many of us that are, oh, I’d say, aged 20 and older, I remember Dan Wheldon‘s 2011 season.

I remember JR Hildebrand smashing into the wall exiting the final corner of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 that May, allowing someone in just as much of an underdog car in Wheldon to win.

I also remember Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway less than five months later — I just turned 26 this past Saturday (March 30), so I was 13 for both of those.

On March 12, a few weeks back, HBO dropped The Lionheart, named after Wheldon’s nickname, on streaming. This is one of the very few features to center specifically on a driver tragically taken too early: plenty center on still-active or retired drivers (Born Racer, Schumacher, etc) and plenty center around the dangers involved in racing (One By One, Rapid Response, etc), but I don’t think one has been made on a tragedy as recent as this. 2011 truly wasn’t that long ago.

After watching it, I have some thoughts — on an overarching level, it’s an excellently made documentary that strikes a very good balance between Wheldon’s legacy and his sons beginning their own journeys into racing.

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I’ll start with the caveat that I, unlike I’m sure many of those who faithfully read and write for this website, did not see that 2011 NTT IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when it aired and unfolded. Probably for the best. The closest I’ve come to seeing something tragic was probably Ryan Newman at Daytona International Speedway back in 2020.

However, I’ve seen 2011’s replays, the “crash autopsy” breakdown report that’s floating around the Internet and all of the background of the drama leading up to a race that shouldn’t have happened.

I think many of us look back on 2011 Las Vegas similar to the 2015 IndyCar race at Auto Club Speedway that ended with Ryan Briscoe flipping into the infield. I saw that one live and have never been more terrified (or expectant, unfortunately) that I was about to see someone die. The racing — while amazing to watch — was too on that edge for comfort.

I love documentaries that really bring the human element to the forefront. Whereas (though I don’t remember any of Wheldon’s early racing years, because I wasn’t even 10 years old yet) I can imagine he struck many people as cocky, arrogant, brash, you choose the adjective, I think this doc did a fantastic job of centering on his Andretti Autosport teammates from when he debuted — Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta — and how their impressions of him changed from the initial times they had to work with him.

Absolutely loved the thread throughout the movie in which they went from being apprehensive of him joining their stable to really embracing him as a teammate. Got a tear in my eye when they’re talking about their last dinner as a quartet (in 2011) and the grainy photo of them at the restaurant is shown.

Wheldon’s wife Susie and sons Sebastian and Oliver are the focus of this documentary — no gripes there, as they were the ones left after his death at Las Vegas. I think it does a very good job of showing how Susie grapples with her two kids following in their father’s footsteps despite it being exactly how she lost her husband and the fact that she admits that “one day they’ll say ‘I wish my dad was here instead of you'” or something along those same lines, given his experience with racing.

Past owners Herta, Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi were among a few of the others interviewed for this documentary, which adds another level of showing just how far-reaching Wheldon’s legacy is.

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It’s an emotional ride, and one that’s impacted me far more than many other racing documentaries. Sure, Blink of an Eye was moving in its own way due to familiarity with the story, but I vividly remember the breaking news of Wheldon’s death and seeing the article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch the very next day.

That was after I’d watched the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as it happened live and my teenage self despaired when the neat underdog story of Hildebrand’s chances went up in a shower of sparks and debris. Then, a few hours later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas in the final corner of the Coca-Cola 600, meaning both National Guard cars lost their respective races while leading out of the final corners on Memorial Day weekend. Helluva ironic.

Now, 13 years onward, Wheldon’s win was entirely fitting.

Though since 2011, we’ve seen the deaths of both Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson in the “Big Three” of racing series around the world, NASCAR has yet to experience that again — or any of the three series for what’s going on nine years now. Safety has continued to come a long way. Things might’ve gone worse for the likes of Romain Grosjean, Lewis Hamilton and Zhou Guanyu without something like the halo.

For context, I ranked this No. 26 on my all-time motorsports film list of the currently 63 movies on it. My only complaint lies with the fact that it feels just a tad too long, that maybe it could’ve clocked in at 100 minutes max and still had the same impact. Otherwise, few-to-no complaints.

As Dan puts it, that “good-looking son of a bitch from England” left an incredible legacy.

The Lionheart is available for streaming on Max or other services with a primetime subscription.

Follow @adamncheek

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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