Her Husband Died in a Horrific Car Crash. Now Susie Wheldon Is Grappling with 'Fear' and Joy as Her Teens Race Like Dad

Thirteen years after Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon's tragic death, his widow Susie opens up about why she isn't denying her sons a chance to follow in his footsteps

<p>Susie Wheldon/Instagram; Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage</p> Susie Wheldon with Sebastian and Oliver; Dan Wheldon

Susie Wheldon/Instagram; Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage

Susie Wheldon with Sebastian and Oliver; Dan Wheldon

On Oct. 16, 2011, Susie Wheldon's world was shattered when her husband, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, was killed at age 33 in a horrific, fiery 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during an IndyCar World Championship Event.

The loss of Dan, a beloved and highly charismatic Brit, didn't just make Susie a widow but also left their two babies without a father.

"Sebastian was just two and a half, and Oliver was seven months," Susie, 47, tells PEOPLE of losing her husband, who, along with Sebastian and Oliver, are now the subject of the documentary The Lionheart (streaming March 12 on Max).

<p>Darrell Ingham/Getty</p> Dan and Susie Wheldon in 2008

Darrell Ingham/Getty

Dan and Susie Wheldon in 2008

Thirteen years later, Sebastian, now 15, and Oliver, 12, are following in dad's footsteps and becoming racing champions themselves, having graduated from carts to cars in the past year and signing with Andretti Global.

Susie knows it may seem odd to other parents: That she would let her kids do something that's perceived to be as dangerous as car racing — especially after what happened to Dan.

Related: Indy Racer Dan Wheldon Expecting First Child, a Boy

<p>Nick Laham/Getty</p> Dan Wheldon winning the Indy 500 in 2011

Nick Laham/Getty

Dan Wheldon winning the Indy 500 in 2011

But she says she couldn't let her own fears get in the way of their passion and joy. She's also not sure she had a chance to tell them they couldn't race, considering it was in their DNA.

"It's definitely a different type of mindset," she says of racing cars. "But I am a mother first, and your natural instinct is to protect your kids. But seeing them in what they're doing, and how they are fulfilled and how happy, it's brought me so much joy and healing. I mean, every day is different, but some days are still very hard. But for the most part, I'm just really proud of them and what they're accomplishing."

<p>Instagram</p> Susie, Sebastian, and Oliver Wheldon


Susie, Sebastian, and Oliver Wheldon

Both kids are junior development drivers for Andretti Indy, and rising in the ranks. Susie says she knows driving makes them feel close to the man they never got to know. She adds that she never dissuaded them, but she did constantly question them.

"We had so many talks about it where I was like, 'Are you sure?'" she says. "It got to the point where they were like, 'Mom, stop asking us. Yes, this is what we want to do!' They were annoyed by me, so I was like, alright."

Susie threw herself into being a racing mom, giving up nights and weekends and devoting herself to traveling the country with the kids for their events.

"It's a different lifestyle from most and a sacrifice, but I get so much joy from it, from being there with them and watching them race," she says.

"We have this really special bond. And I'm so proud of how they're brothers. They're competitive, but they're each other's best friend, the only person who truly knows what the other has been through with losing their dad, but also with this sport and what it feels like to show up for a race."

She admits that she feels bundles of nerves when they get behind the wheel. "I pray a lot," she says.

"I pray for their safety, for them to do well. As they got older, and as they were moving up through the ranks, obviously it got more dangerous. Certainly it's more competitive, and you get faster and it's serious. It's not for everybody."

The documentary about Dan and her boys came to be after director Laura Brownson saw an article about Sebastian and Oliver following in their dad's footsteps, and was blown away by Susie's strength.

"I knew of Dan’s larger-than-life personality and tragic passing, but it had never dawned on me that I might want to tell his story until seeing that article," Brownson tells PEOPLE. "Suddenly, with the layer of the boys’ on-going story, I saw a much more relatable film, moving beyond the realm of motorsport, and touching on universal themes of familial legacy, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, risk-taking, loss, and love."

Related: How Race Car Driver Paralyzed in Crash Found 'Inspiration' in His Dad Who Was Similarly Paralyzed

She continues, "As the mother of two risk-taking boys, I related to Susie’s palpable dilemma, and wanted to understand why would the boys want to do the same thing that took their father from them, and why would Susie let them?

<p>Michael Vorhees</p> Susie Wheldon with Sebastian and Oliver

Michael Vorhees

Susie Wheldon with Sebastian and Oliver

"What I came to learn is that they race because when behind the wheel, it’s the closest they will ever get to Dan. From my perspective, it’s extraordinarily brave of her to push aside her own fear, and allow them to drive."

Adds executive producer Aaron Cohen (from Words + Pictures): "The story of Dan Wheldon is the kind of story you just never forget after hearing it. Having the opportunity to make a film about Dan's legacy and the continuing tale of his wife Susie and their sons was a real privilege, and we were so excited to be part of this project. Laura Brownson has done a phenomenal job directing a poignant and inspiring documentary, capturing a family's complex and enduring relationship with racing through tragedy, and the connection that the sport continues to offer them. We are so thrilled for the world to see the film.”

On her part, Susie says her children and their drive to become champions like their dad give her purpose —  and have also helped her heal. Now she hopes the documentary will help others understand their life a bit better.

"There are so many different things that it covers," she says of The Lionheart.

"Certainly family and legacy and all of that. But also universal themes of our human experience, themes of love and loss and grief. I always say that, ultimately, it's a story of hope."

"Everybody has a story, and often they face circumstances that are life-altering or tragic. But you really can find your way to the other side again, and life can be beautiful again. At least, that's what I hope people take away from it."

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