Heartland: The Lionheart
This astonishing documentary about the life and death of Indy 500 legend Dan Wheldon, and the legacy carried on by his family, is a triumph of the heart.
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Even if you’re a casual fan of open-wheel racing, or live in the Indianapolis area, you probably know the legend of Dan Wheldon. Cocky young British kid who came out of nowhere to win the Indy 500, went to other teams and struggled, was actually retired from the sport by his early 30s, got recruited by a rookie team and made the unlikeliest of combacks, winning the 500 again in 2011.
And then, of course, dying tragically later that same year at an ill-advised event at the Las Vegas track, drivers stacked three and four deep in a desperate ploy for attention that seemed fated to produce one of the worst crashes in racing history. IndyCar has never returned there.
The life, death and legacy of Wheldon is enshrined in the extraordinary new documentary, “The Lionheart,” which opened this year’s Heartland Film Festival Oct. 5. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Directed by Laura Brownson, the film tracks Wheldon through his life as a kid go-kart racer in England, coming over to America as a teen because the European Formula 1 series was too expensive, joining the Michael Andretti team and forming a power quartet — and enduring circle of friends — along with Tony Kannan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.
Later he left for other teams, didn’t do as well, struggling with the new IRL format that put more emphasis on twisty road racing instead of super-speed ovals. Any fan of open-wheel racing will find it a superb document of Wheldon’s rise, fall and return.
More importantly, it’s a story of family — devotion, sacrifice and carrying on Wheldon’s legacy.
Wheldon’s wife, Susie, endures a dozen years later after his death, raising their two boys, Oliver and Sebastian. They have became kart racers themselves, following in their dad’s footsteps. As a parallel story to Wheldon’s career, the movie follows the family as they travel all over the country to compete in high-level races, even uprooting from Dan’s beloved home in St. Petersburg to move closer to the action in Miami.
Susie knows the path her sons are on is the same Dan followed to become a professional racer. The boys, who barely remember their father, clearly have speed in their blood and want to follow his path. Susie is fiercely supportive of their ambitions, even as her ambivalence and even fear are palpable presences on the screen.
Brownson’s cameras follow the Wheldons all over, from track to bedroom, one of the most intimate portraits you’ll ever see on film. It’s the sort of thing that only comes from a long, arduous process of gaining trust and being a constant presence, so it truly feels like the subjects have forgotten the cameras are there. We never catch them performing for the lens.
All the big names in racing show up for interviews to testify to what Wheldon was like, not just as a precision-honed wheelman but as a person. This includes Franchitti, Herta, Kanaan, Andretti, owner Chip Ganassi, Scott Dixon, and many more.
Cocky, fun-loving, borderline OCD about everything from his car to his shoelaces, Wheldon was like the kid brother that everybody adored, even when he occasionally rubbed them the wrong way with his brashness. Kanaan talks about a dangerous move Wheldon pulled on him during a race that led to them not speaking for two years.
They later reconciled, after Wheldon became a husband and father and had clearly mellowed out some. During one present-day encounter, Kanaan has Susie and the boys over to his house for some male bonding, something Oliver and Sebastian clearly crave, in just one of the film’s many emotional highlights.
Equally moving is the slow, tender romance that grew between Susie and Dan. She was initially assigned to him as part of the marketing team for his car’s sponsor, Jim Beam, and he teased her like a playground crush. When he left the Andretti team after his first 500 win, tired of being the “kid” of the team, she went along with him, their fate sealed.
The Lionheart is a nickname Wheldon earned early on for his risk-taking methods on the track, and he wore a seal of Richard the Lionheart on his helmets throughout his career.
In many ways, though, the title of this film really refers to Susie. She’s the very essence of maternal strength, selflessly providing emotional and material support to her sons while enduring the attention — not always positive — as the widow of one of the most famous racers of all time.
“The Lionheart” is ostensibly about car racing and those born with the unquenchable need to win. But truly, it’s a triumph of the heart.