Van Diemen duo pay tribute to Dan Wheldon

Norfolk motorsport stalwart Ralph Firman Senior paid tribute to 'a jolly good fellow' who learned his craft at Snetterton – ex-IndyCar champion and British driver Dan Wheldon.

Berkshire 33-year-old Wheldon died in Sunday's Las Vegas 300 after being caught in a 15-car pile-up on the 12th lap of IndyCar's season final�.

News of the 2005 IndyCar champion's death shook the racing world – and those at Norfolk's Snetterton circuit, where Wheldon spent a successful final season in the UK with Van Diemen before Firman helped book the eventual two-time Indianapolis 500 winner's first ticket to the United States.

'He was a jolly good fellow, had a lovely family and my heart goes out to them,' said Firman. 'He was a good little driver and he did well; he decided to take the American route which we helped him achieve through our contacts and he did very well and ended up with a fantastic name over here and a very nice lifestyle.

'I was at a prize-giving on Sunday, at the end of the championship we've been competing in here – and this was the championship Dan did when he first came over to America, so he was very close to these guys hearts who run it; they held a minute's silence.'

Having made his mark in karting – being taught by Norwich man, former champion and Ayrton Senna's early nemesis, Terry Fullerton – a 19-year-old Wheldon took the lead seat at Firman's Snetterton-based Van Diemen outfit and made a big success of it.

In a tough 1998 Formula Ford field he secured second in the championship behind Jenson Button and while his family's money made a route through Formula Three into Formula One impossible, Firman ensured Wheldon could continue to chase his dream across the Atlantic.

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Coincidentally, the Van Diemen boss spent the weekend at New York's famous Watkins Glen circuit and felt the full impact Stateside of Wheldon's death – one which raised questions over a 34-strong field on such a tight oval track.

'The reverberations were huge here, very much so, and it is so unusual in this day and age with all the new safety structures that have been imposed,' added Firman.

'It used to be common in the Indianapolis cars that drivers were badly injured or indeed killed, but now it's very rare and it comes as such a shock when it does actually happen.'

Wheldon regularly tested around Snetterton for Van Diemen during his time in Norfolk and while his performance in 1998 provided the acid test for his potential, his 2005 and 2011 Indie 500 victories delivered global respect.

Van Diemen manager John Uprichard revealed Wheldon kept a friendly hold of his motorsport roots and those who helped him to reach racing stardom.

'He really did it all on his own talent,' said Uprichard. 'We do a lot of business in the States and he was often around and would talk to us because he was just that sort of person. His racing roots and those people who helped him along the way, he was always there to talk to them and share a laugh.

'I was at the Formula Ford Festival this weekend for a 40th anniversary dinner and (Snetterton circuit owner) Jonathan Palmer was making his speech recognising the careers of various people who drove in Formula Ford and did so well – like David Coulthard, Michael Schumacher, and of course it got on to Danny Wheldon and his success in IndyCar.

'And within 24 hours of that he was dead. It's really terrible. He was just such a lovely guy, one of those people who was just so friendly, a real nice guy. His dad was so enthusiastic about his son's racing and he put a lot of effort in to get the kid's career under way – they were just a close knit family and really proud of their boy.'

Wheldon's $5m challenge in Las Vegas on Sunday was to win the race from the back of the grid and was unable to avoid the colliding cars in front, after a pile-up in which Wheldon's colleagues were lucky to survive.

The race was cancelled before the remaining field completed a five-lap salute in Wheldon's honour.

British Racing Drivers' Club president Derek Warwick added: 'Dan was undoubtedly one of the great talents of his generation as his racing results testified. Two victories in the Indy 500 put him in a very select group of drivers

'He was a great ambassador for motorsport and will be hugely missed.'