Dan Wheldon, a popular and congenial racecar driver from England who won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in May, died Sunday in a fiery 15-car accident early in a 300-mile IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon, of England, after capturing the Indy 500 on May 30. He also won in 2005.
Vitor Meira of Brazil at a drivers meeting on Sunday after the crash that killed Dan Wheldon during an IndyCar Series race in Las Vegas.
Wheldon’s car went airborne and hit the catch fence 12 laps into the race, which was scheduled to run 200 laps at the one-and-a-half-mile oval. He was airlifted to the hospital, and his death was announced about two hours later. Pic below
Series officials met with drivers and they decided not to continue the race, the last of the season. Instead, the drivers did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon as his car number, 77, flashed alone on the score board at the track.
Wheldon, 33, is probably the most well-known driver to die in a race in the United States since Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Wheldon’s death was the first in the IndyCar Series since the rookie Paul Danawas killed in a warm-up session before a race at Homestead, Fla., in 2006.
“He was one of those special, special people from when he showed up first in IndyCar,” said the four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, a former teammate of Wheldon’s who had known him since they were children. “And he was kind of brash, all that stuff, but he was a charmer. He was a charmer. Then he became this loving family guy who is still charming, but he had this whole new side to him.”
A former series champion relegated to part-time status in the series, Wheldon had taken a major step to solidify his future the morning of the race. According to Michael Andretti, Wheldon had signed a multiyear contract at Andretti Autosport to replace Danica Patrick, who is leaving the series after the season to pursue a career in Nascar. Wheldon won the championship in 2005 for the team co-owned by Andretti.
“We had great plans to do fun things together,” Andretti said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Because he was a part-time driver, Wheldon took on an unusual challenge Sunday. He was trying to win a $5 million bonus offered to nonregular drivers, which he would have split with Ann Babenco, a fan from High Bridge, N.J., had he won the race.
The accident unfolded well in front of Wheldon, who was near the back of the 34-car field. Replays showed he ran into a car, which the veteran Paul Tracy later said was his, that had run over debris and slowed down drastically. Wheldon’s car vaulted over Tracy’s and flew from the inside lane to the outside wall, where it tangled with the flaming wreckage of Will Power’s car. Power’s car had crashed into the back of Alex Lloyd’s rapidly slowing car and had hurdled it, turning over in midair and landing on its side as it smashed into the wall and slid down in flames.
The track was strewn with cars on fire and scattered debris. Wheldon’s car was covered with a yellow tarpaulin, placed on a truck and taken from the track. It took more than an hour for the track to be cleared and repaired.
In a television interview before the race was canceled, Ryan Briscoe, another driver for Penske, said of the accident: “I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it. The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from ‘Terminator’ or something.”
Three other drivers were injured, including Power, who was attempting to overtake Franchitti for the series championship. Power was treated and released from the hospital, but IndyCar said J. R. Hildebrand and Pippa Mann would remain overnight for evaluation.
Indy cars had not raced at Las Vegas since 2000, and drivers had been concerned before the race about safety at the oval, which also hosts Nascar races. Indy cars travel much faster than stock cars, reaching 220 miles an hour. There was a fear that a “pack race” — tightly bunched cars at very high speed — would unfold.
“The cars are going to be inches apart, both to the sides and behind and in front of you, at speeds of over 220 miles an hour,” Franchitti said Thursday in a telephone interview.
Franchitti, who won the series championship Sunday because Power was involved in the accident, had raced only in stock cars at Las Vegas before last weekend.
Power said Saturday, “It’s a track that’s so easy to drive it manufactures really tight-knit racing, which is really quite intense.”
Randy Bernard, the chief executive of the series, did not take questions after announcing Wheldon’s death at a news conference.
Wheldon, married with two young sons, won the Indy 500 under memorable circumstances twice. The first time was in 2005, when he passed Patrick for the lead with six laps left. Wheldon won the race again in May after Hildebrand, a rookie, hit the wall on the last lap while leading.
Wheldon had 16 career victories as a regular in the IndyCar Series from 2003 until last year, when Hildebrand replaced him as a driver at Panther Racing. Wheldon won this year’s Indy 500 in a one-race deal driving a car owned by the former driver Bryan Herta. Wheldon drove in one other race this year, finishing 14th in an Oct. 2 race at Kentucky Speedway after starting 28th.
On Saturday, writing in a blog for USA Today, Wheldon said he was frustrated that his car had been off the pace in early practices.
Referring to Franchitti and Power, Wheldon wrote: “Honestly, if I can be fast enough early in the race to be able to get up there and latch onto those two, it will be pure entertainment. It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out.”