Briton died in a 15-car crash at the IndyCar season finale in the Las Vegas Indy 300.
Two-time Indy 500 winner Wheldon dies in crash at IndyCar season finale
LAS VEGAS // Dan Wheldon, who moved to the United States from his native England with hopes of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to prevail at his sport’s most famed race twice, died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300.
He was 33.
Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 for the second time this May, won 16 times in his IndyCar career and was the series champion in 2005.
He was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1.19 pm, local time Sunday, and taken to a nearby hospital, becoming the first IndyCar driver to die on the track since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.
As word began to spread that his injuries were fatal, those at the track could not control their tears.
Television cameras captured Ashley Judd, the wife of IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, dabbing at her eyes shortly before the official word came.
The remainder of the race was canceled.
Drivers solemnly returned to the track for a five-lap tribute to Wheldon, almost all of them hiding their eyes behind dark sunglasses after being told their colleague was gone.
As Roger Penske, owner of Penske Racing, met with his team trackside and other drivers simply hugged those around them, Randy Bernard, the IndyCar CEO, made the announcement of Wheldon’s death.
“IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” Bernard said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners, have decided to end the race. In honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute to in his honor.”
When drivers returned to the track, Wheldon’s No 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard.
Franchitti, a former teammate of Wheldon’s, sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the tribute laps.
“It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible,” said Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start. “It was debris everywhere across the whole track, you could smell the smoke, you could see the billowing smoke on the back straight from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered.”
Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.
Their concerns became reality when contact on Turn 2 sent cars flying through the air, crashing into each other and into the outside wall and catch fence.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ryan Briscoe said. “The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from Terminator or something. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere. So it was scary, and your first thoughts are hoping that no one is hurt because there’s just stuff everywhere.
Franchitti, who earned his third consecutive IndyCar Series championship when Power was taken out in the crash, shared no joy in the outcome of 17-round season when he spoke before the fate of his dear friend had been revealed.
“My view of the crash was the back wing of Scott [Dixon’s] Target car,” Franchitti said. “I was sitting behind Scott and I could see it was five laps in and people were starting to do crazy stuff.
“That early in the race I want no part of it at all. You know I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it’s about.
“I said before we even tested here that this was not a suitable track for us and we’ve seen it today. You can’t get away from anybody. There’s no way to differentiate yourself as a car or a driver. People get frustrated and go four-wide and you saw what happened. I hope everybody’s OK. I saw a couple of cars airborne in front of me. At that point my focus was very much on trying not to hit Scott.”
James Jakes, Vitor Meira, Wade Cunningham, JR Hildebrand, Townsend Bell, Jay Howard, Tomas Scheckter, Charlie Kimball, Paul Tracy, EJ Viso, Dan Wheldon, Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Will Power and Buddy Rice were all taken out in the crash.
Both Mann and Hildebrand are seeking attention after complaining of dizziness. Power was a late addition to the medical centre with lower back pain as his primary concern.
Over speakers at the track, the song Danny Boy blared, followed by Amazing Grace as hundreds of crew workers from each team stood solemnly.
The race was only minutes old when Wheldon, who started at the back of the 34-car field and was in position for a US$5 million (Dh18.3m) payday if he could have won the race, was one of 15 cars involved in a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.
Several cars burst into flames, and debris was all over the track.
The impact so intense that workers later needed to patch holes in the asphalt.
Video replays showed Wheldon’s car turning over as it became airborne and sailed into what’s called the “catch fence”, which sits over the SAFER barrier that is designed to give a bit when cars make contact.
Rescue workers were at Wheldon’s car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.
Bernard said Wheldon’s injuries were “unsurvivable.”
Wheldon’s first Indianapolis 500 victory was in 2005 – he passed Danica Patrick with less than 10 laps to go that year – and his win at the sport’s most famed race this year was one to particularly savor.
It came in perhaps the oddest of fashions, as he was the beneficiary of a huge gaffe by someone else.
Wheldon was in second place, far back of rookie JR Hildebrand approaching the final turn – when Hildebrand lost control and clipped the wall.
Wheldon zipped past, and the only lap he led all day at Indianapolis was the last one.
He returned to the track the next morning for the traditional photo session with the winner, kissing the bricks as his two-year-old son, Sebastian, sat on the asphalt alongside him, and wife, Susie, held their then two-month-old, Oliver.
Wheldon was almost resigned to finishing second at Indy for the third straight year, before misfortune struck Hildebrand.
“It’s obviously unfortunate, but that’s Indianapolis,” Wheldon said. “That’s why it’s the greatest spectacle in racing.
“You never know what’s going to happen.”
Such was the case again Sunday.
Wheldon was well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the fateful lap, and had no way to avoid the wrecks in front of him. There was no time to brake or steer out of trouble.
“I saw two cars touch each other up in front of me and then I tried to slow down, couldn’t slow down,” driver Paul Tracy said. “Then Dan’s car, from what I saw in the videos, came over my back wheel and over top of me.
“Just a horrendous accident.”
Even as a former series champion and one of the sport’s top names, Wheldon did not have the financial backing to secure a full-time ride for himself this season.
He kept himself busy by working as a commentator for some races and testing the prototype cars that the IndyCar Series will be using in the future.
IndyCar will have new cars in 2012, much of the changes done with a nod for safety.
It had been a passion of Wheldon’s in recent months, and he once quipped that he was a “test dummy” for the new cars by working with engineers as often as he was.
Wheldon began driving go-karts as a four year old, and racing stayed with him as he attended school in England as a child, winning eight British national titles along the way.
He moved to the United States in 1999, quickly trying to find sponsor money to fund his dream, and by 2002 – after stints in some lower-profile open-wheel series, such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights – he was on the IndyCar grid for the first time.
In a sport that is all about speed, Wheldon was a fast study.
He got his first IndyCar Series ride, in 2002, for two races with Panther Racing, then replaced Michael Andretti when Andretti retired the next season, and won rookie of the year.
His first victory came the next season, in Japan, and he finished second in the championship standings behind Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan.=
The next year, he was its champion.
NASCAR teams talked to him about changing series.
So did Formula One organisations.
In the end, he decided IndyCar was his calling.
“The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500,” Wheldon said in 2005, not long after becoming the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1966 to prevail at the Brickyard. “It would be really difficult to leave this series because of that race.”
As evidenced by the difficulty in finding sponsorships this season, it was also difficult for him to stay in the series.
Even though he finished among the top 10 in IndyCar points annually from 2004 through 2010, Sunday was only Wheldon’s third start of 2011.
Off the track, Wheldon had varied interests, some of which had almost nothing to do with his driving.
In 2010, he released a photo book he called Lionheart, a coffee table book that he described as “almost like a photo biography from my career in IndyCars up until this point”.
He spent years editing the book, which included dozens of photos of his life away from the track, including images from his wedding.
“I wanted it to have a lot of my input,” Wheldon said last year.
“Obviously, it’s a reflection of me.”
He also wanted that book to provide his fans with a glimpse of his life that they would never have known otherwise.
“There’s a lot of my wedding in there,” Wheldon said. “I wanted there to be a lot of photos of my wife. She was the most beautiful bride on her wedding day the world had ever seen.”
INDYCAR SERIES DEATHS
October 16, 2011 – Dan Wheldon, 33, died in a fiery 15-car wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his car flew over another on Lap 13 and smashed into the wall just outside turn 2.
March 26, 2006 – Paul Dana, 30, died during the warmup for the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After Ed Carpenter's car hit a wall and slid to a stop, Dana slammed into it at nearly 200 mph, his car nearly splitting in half. The chassis flew off the ground and turned over before landing on its wheels.
October 22, 2003 – Tony Renna, 26, died after a crash during testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He lost control at nearly 220 mph, went airborne and crashed into a fence.
May 17, 1996 – Scott Brayton, 37, died during practice for the Indy 500. Drayton, who had earlier won the pole, had his right rear tire go flat and his car went careening in a wall at more than 230 mph.
RECENT NOTABLE DEATHS IN MOTORSPORT
Tommy Baldwin, 2004, Thompson, Connecticut
John Baker, 2002, Irwindale, California
Dale Earnhardt, 2001, Daytona Beach, Florida
Tony Roper, 2000, Fort Worth, Texas
Kenny Irwin, 2000, Loudon, New Hampshire.
Adam Petty, 2000, Loudon, New Hampshire
John Nemechek, 1997, Homestead, Florida
Rodney Orr, 1994, Daytona Beach, Florida
Neil Bonnett, 1994, Daytona Beach, Florida
Clifford Allison, 1992, Brooklyn, Michigan
JD McDuffie, 1991, Watkins Glen, New York
Grant Adcox, 1989, Hampton, Georgia
Greg Moore, 1999, Fontana, California
Gonzalo Rodriguez, 1999, Monterey, California
Jeff Krosnoff, 1996, Toronto
Jovy Marcelo, 1992, Indianapolis
Gordon Smiley, 1982, Indianapolis
Ayrton Senna, 1994, Imola, Italy
Roland Ratzenberger, 1994, Imola, Italy
Ricardo Paletti, 1982, Montreal
Gilles Villeneuve, 1982, Spa Francorchamps, Belgium
Dan Wheldon, 2011, Las Vegas
Paul Dana, 2006, Miami
Tony Renna, 2003, Indianapolis
Scott Brayton, 1996, Indianapolis
Mark Niver, 2010, Kent, Washington
Neal Parker, 2010, Old Bridge, New Jersey
Scott Kalitta, 2008, Englishtown, New Jersey
Darrell Russell, 2004, Madison, Illinois