ST. PETERSURG, Fla. – When Susie Wheldon calls, the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock picks up.
Wheldon decided to hold the grand opening for her new retail venture, Verve, on Thursday evening – on the eve of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – and asked several drivers to model the boutique’s clothes. She got what she asked for and then some.
Wheldon, the beloved widow of popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon, didn’t have enough time to dress every driver who showed up. Nearly half of the starting grid for this weekend’s race attended, including four-time series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon, 2004 season champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Conor Daly.
All dressed in Verve’s simple high-end looks, gave media interviews and talked to customers. Retired four-time champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti played with the Wheldons’ sons, Sebastian and Oliver. Graham Rahal and his wife, NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force, shopped. Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, introduced himself to Susie. Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand mingled.
“For me and Dixon and Marco and Hinch, who were really close to Dan at the time, we made Susie a promise the day that Dan was gone that we would do anything for her,” said Kanaan. “I know Dixon and (wife) Emma spend a lot of time together with the kids. That’s just part of our promise that we made her. She’s part of the INDYCAR family.”
Newgarden sees similarity between the clothes in the store and Dan’s sense of style.
“It’s so unique to Dan when you think about it – the type of clothes and it being a fashionable clothing store,” the Team Penske driver said. “Dan would have loved this place. Dan always wanted to be as crisp as he could be. He always had the latest and greatest and that’s what Susie’s got here.”
Shipped from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, Dan Wheldon’s winning Indianapolis 500 car from 2011 was on display in front of the store and the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy was inside, positioned next to a mural of a lion with a “DW” locket hanging around its neck – a reminder of Dan, nicknamed “Lionheart.”
Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president, and most of the Hulman & Company board attended, too, including CEO Mark Miles. St. Petersburg’s mayor Rick Kriseman was there, as was former mayor Rick Baker, who was instrumental in bringing the grand prix to St. Petersburg 13 years ago.
Susie Wheldon, Baker and the drivers started the evening with a toast.
“We want to toast in celebration to this new venture of mine,” Susie said, “but also to take the opportunity to just thank everybody in the room tonight. There are a lot of special people here that I wouldn’t be here without. And for not only showing up tonight but for being here and showing up for the last five years.”
Baker introduced Wheldon, saying that Dan became a special resident in the city and that, since his death, Susie has forged a new, independent identity in the city.
“She first had to make the decision, ‘Am I going to stay here? Is this going to be my city?’ And she adopted St. Petersburg. This is where she wanted to raise her boys and this is where she wanted to have her life, going forward,” Baker said. “And we are so thankful. She’s done it with such grace and such love for the community.”