Wheldon’s personality larger than career

“Hello, beautiful.’’

Those were the words I heard when I answered the phone for an interview with Dan Wheldon this week.

Laughing, I said my hellos, asked about his little boys, and then started to ask my first question when Wheldon interrupted to bust my chops, “You gonna just assume I was talking to you?’’

For all the impressive things the 33-year-old star accomplished on track before his tragic death in Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas — particularly the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 wins and 2005 IndyCar championship — it’s his large, engaging and endearing personality that will be missed most.

Dan and his wife, Susie, made their home an hour away from mine, making him my “local driver.” I got to know him well during the past decade, writing about him from his very beginnings in IndyCar through his glory days and his recent revitalization.

From day one, it was obvious Dan was a character who could provoke an involuntary smile. With a quick wit and sharp tongue, he was able to take it as much as he liked to dish it out. But with that snarky British accent and omnipresent big, toothy grin, all you could do was smile back.

When Danica Patrick’s Rookie of the Year showing overshadowed his 2005 Indy 500 win, he showed up at the next race wearing a T-shirt that read, “I actually won the Indy 500.”

However, he was friendly to absolutely everyone in the IndyCar paddock. And he had that intangible that all competitors seek. As much as the drivers enjoyed his company, everyone knew he was their fiercest competition every time he got behind the wheel.

He had 16 career IndyCar wins and set a series record with six wins in his 2005 championship season.

But for all the success he had on track, in recent years, Dan settled most comfortably into his role of family man.

I remember how proud he was after proposing to Susie in 2007. He didn’t just casually share the news.

“I’m the luckiest guy (in) the world because I’m about to marry the great Canadian and lovely Susie Behm,’’ Wheldon raved.

As happy as he always seemed, I’d never seen him more happy than the last few months when he shared stories of his boys, Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, 7 months. He came from a large family and wanted more children still, but wisely knew “it’s really up to Susie.’’

At Dan’s steering, our conversations always, always included updates about his kids, and he was so proud to have them both trackside at Indianapolis this spring to share in what many consider his most amazing achievement.

After leaving the mid-pack Panther Racing team last year, Dan somehow, and illogically, found himself out of work for the 2011 season. But Dan was the ultimate eternal optimist, and it served him well, never more so than in his amazing win in May’s Indianapolis — a victory of the longest odds.

He had not even turned a race lap this season when he won the world’s greatest race driving a car for his former teammate and good friend Bryan Herta’s start-up IndyCar operation.

On paper, he was a long shot, but Dan never once doubted he could win the race. We spoke often leading up to the 500 and he always was coy and confident. During Indy 500 Media Day, three days before the race, most of the reporters surrounded the favorites: Wheldon’s good friends Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan.

Dan just smiled, nodded toward the big crowds of media across the room, and insisted that although most people might consider it crazy, he thought he could win the race. In fact, he thought you were crazy if you didn’t think he could win.

He said the same thing this week about the Las Vegas race. He was part of a special promotion and would split a $5 million check with a lucky sweepstakes winner if he could win the race after starting last in the 34-car field.

As great a payday as that would have been, Wheldon’s win in Indianapolis was priceless.

Indy was his favorite race, the one that meant most to him, and he got to celebrate his emotional win with his great friend Herta, dear wife Susie and the two pint-sized apples of his eye.

Dan dedicated the victory to his mother, Sue, who has early Alzheimer’s, and he spent the next few months in the media spotlight bringing attention to the disease.

He wouldn’t say it on the record, but Dan later acknowledged he felt he needed to win that race. In the days after Indianapolis, he painfully wondered aloud whether his mother would be able to enjoy many future wins and whether she would even totally remember his special day.

It was a gift to her. And to his wife and young sons.

For as good as Dan Wheldon was at winning races, one of the most unforgettable racers of his generation was even better at winning smiles and touching hearts.