Susie Wheldon's Husband Died After a Horrific Car Crash. Now Her Sons Are Racing Too

Susie Wheldon (left) and her sons, Sebastian and Oliver. The Wheldon boys have followed their late father, two-time Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon, into racing. Credit - Warner Bros. Discovery

The new documentary The Lionheart concerns a heavy parental quandary: What happens when a child pursues the occupation that took the life of his father?

As expected, it’s quite complicated. The Lionheart centers around Susie Wheldon, widow of the late race-car driver Dan Wheldon, the charismatic Brit who won a pair Indy 500 titles in 2005 and 2011. Wheldon died, at 33, after a horrific 2011 crash during a race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a mile-and-a-half oval track more suited to stock-car racing (IndyCar has never returned to the venue since the accident). At the time of Dan’s death, the Wheldon children, Sebastian and Oliver, were 2 years old and 7 months old, respectively. Now 15 and 12, Sebastian and Oliver have signed on with Andretti Global, the racing organization owned by Michael Andretti—Dan’s former boss. Sebastian is racing in a junior circuit this season, while Oliver has joined the Skip Barber Formula Race Series, a sort of training ground for kart racers transitioning to cars. Sebastian won the Skip Barber championship in 2023.

Wheldon’s nickname—he was known as a fearless driver—provides the title of the film, which is co-produced by TIME Studios and debuts on HBO and streaming service Max today. Susie Wheldon joined TIME in early March for a video interview about why she participated in the documentary, her husband’s enduring legacy, and the challenges of raising children in a sport in which the dangers are all too clear.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity). 

Why participate in this documentary now? 

I had been approached in the past a few times. The timing didn't feel right. I was in the midst of my grief and raising two small kids. I really didn't know what the journey would be. There was one thing that I was very adamant about. I did not want the story to end at Dan's accident. Because it's not the end. The boys are a big part of his legacy. He's here.

In the documentary you mentioned how, after Dan died, you received an outpouring of love and support, from fans as well as celebrities like Peyton Manning and Elton John. Did any one correspondence stick with you? 

There was a gentleman, he was stationed somewhere overseas. He actually flew the [American] flag at half-mast and he actually sent me the flag folded, as they do for military-style funerals. I have it at home. That was really touching. Dan has reached people beyond motorsports and the U.S. That definitely stuck with me.

When Sebastian and Oliver started racing when they were younger, did any part of you want to tell them, given the accident, not to pursue the sport? 

I have asked them, “Is this something you want to do?” to the point where they're just like, “Stop asking, mom.” I wanted them to know that this is not the only way that they can feel close to their dad or connect with their dad. That was important for me, for them to know that.

Do you still get scared at the start of a race? 

It's part of the sport, for sure. It's the part that nobody really wants to talk about. It's the nasty part of it. When they're younger, the stakes aren't as high because they're in little karts and they're not going as fast. Now certainly when they're in cars, it is on my mind sometimes. It's kind of in the back of your mind, just sitting there. But you really have to put some trust and faith in the journey. I certainly don't want to put any fear that I have on them. I don't want to make them fearful of achieving their dreams.

There’s a scene in The Lionheart where the boys are just playing with their friends, running around and saying silly stuff to each other. Basically, they’re being “normal” kids. Given their busy racing schedule, are you ever wistful for a more typical childhood for them?

They don't go to regular schools. They go to hybrid school where it's kind of go at your own pace. When they're on the road, they can work on the road. When we're home, they’re in the classroom. They really don't have that solid friend group from school.

There’s a lot of pressure on them. You are investing a lot of time. It's a financial investment. It's really been my life for the last 10 years. And so there are times where I'm like, “Man, what would it be like for them to be in school?” They don't really have birthday parties. Sebastian's getting ready for high school. He's not going to go to prom. But they do have some solid friendships that they've made through racing. Friendships that'll last forever. And there really have been some great moments at the track. These years that I'm spending with them, they're really, really special. I know that it's not the traditional model. I'm trying to enjoy all of it because I know it goes so fast. It's really been a blessing to be with them on this journey. What they're doing, what we're preparing for, is something extraordinary as well. It's a sacrifice. But it'll also have a big reward, hopefully.

There’s also a scene that shows the boys sort of acting out at a race. You attributed this to the difficulty of seeing all dads at the track looking after their kids. Do you worry about this going forward?   

It'll always be in the back of their minds. It would be hard not to think about it. In karting it's more obvious because the dads are with their kids on the grid doing special handshakes and all of that.

They've been able to work through the grief in their own way. We talk about their dad as much as they want. I've never pushed anything. I've always given them the green light on how they want to maneuver that. So I love it when they come to me—and they’re starting to a little bit more, now that they're in cars—saying, “Hey, what was dad's race like at this race?” I love that because I just want to share so much with them. You can learn from all of it.

What was it like watching the part where one of the boys is searching for and watching kart crashes online?

They definitely went through a stage where they were kind of intrigued by it. They would want to watch these crashes. We never really talked about it. Thank God neither of them had any really bad incidents on the track in their karting years. It’s just maybe curiosity. We were certainly at races where kids had bad accidents. Maybe they broke a bone. That is unnerving to see. You kind of have to put it in a box somewhere and keep going.

When you have two boys that are close in age kind of chasing the same thing, do they get competitive? Do they fight with each other?

The short answer is yes. All the time.

They’ve had to learn the concept of, if you work together on the track, you can get ahead and race each other at the end. In one race, Oliver ended up making a pass on Sebastian. All Sebastian sees is his little brother in front of him. So instead of being like, “OK, let me just be patient,” because you can kind of create a gap if you work together instead of spending time trying to pass each other, he went for the pass and Oliver passed him again. By that time the group had caught up to them and I think they finished third and fourth.

I’m standing there going, “Oh my God. What are you doing?” But they've learned. They're the only two people that can really understand each other. So I'm always trying to tell them, “Listen, you look to your right or left, that's your brother. That's who you need to look out for. That’s who's going to be with you forever.”

What do you miss most about Dan Wheldon?

The biggest thing is he just had this incredible ability to make you feel like everything was going to be OK. When I was this new mom, that was scary. I missed that. I miss having that one person that you can pick up the phone and call about anything. Little things, whatever. That's been hard. He could make me laugh harder than anybody. And I see that in my kids now too. They're quite humorous. They like to play jokes.

I feel like he's always around in some way too.

What do you think racing fans, and sports fans, have missed out on these past dozen-plus years since Dan’s passing? 

He was a big personality. You miss seeing him and that big smile. From reading those letters, from what people have come up to me and said, from reading social media, he always took time. He would always drop what he was doing to sign an autograph. People would walk away from meeting him, whether it would be for two minutes or at a sponsor dinner or whatever, they would walk away feeling like he was their best friend. What really made him special is his ability to connect with people.

Former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard declined to be interviewed for the documentary. Bernard received some criticism after the race from people who thought IndyCar put drivers at risk. The race featured 34 cars, a season high, on a high-banked oval, allowing cars to race three-wide at speeds over 200 miles per hour. Dan was offered a $5 million bonus if he won the race from the back of the field, incentivizing risk. What would you say to Bernard if you had the chance? 

I really wouldn't say anything to him, if I'm honest. It's not something that I ever give energy to, so I don't really know the best answer for that.

Do you consider him culpable at all for the tragedy?

I think there are definitely questions. I just never want to go down that road. Because I kind of made peace with everything. I just never really bring that up or talk about that or give energy to that.

While you are in a unique situation, you’re not alone. Children of firefighters killed in the line of duty on 9/11, for example, have themselves become firefighters. Others have followed their mother or father into a profession—military, law enforcement, etc.— that has claimed their lives. For anyone navigating this terrain, what have you learned through your experience? What advice would you give? 

There are definitely doubts in my mind. So many times, I ask, “Is this the right thing? Is this the right path? Am I making a mistake?” But I think you get those little nudges. Seeing them win on the racetrack, or seeing them overcome an obstacle, those kinds of things are a nudge that lets you know you are on the right path. Trust the process. You're right where you need to be.

Write to Sean Gregory at