Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died Sunday in a horrific 15-car crash that catapulted the Englishman’s car into the air and into a fence at the Las Vegas 300 IndyCar series finale.
Wheldon, 33, died from injuries sustained in the fiery pile-up, in which several cars were sent flying while others careered down the track in flames to litter the track with smoking debris.
“IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.”
Wheldon’s fellow drivers had been told of his death shortly before Bernard made his announcement.
Bernard said IndyCar drivers and owners together opted not to resume the race.
Wheldon’s fellow pilots decided to drive a five-lap salute in his honor — many of them weeping as they completed the solemn gesture with Wheldon’s number 77 the only one blazing on the scoreboard tower.
The chaos started at Turn 2 of the 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) Las Vegas Motor Speedway oval on the 12th lap of the race.
The chain reaction appeared to begin when Wade Cunningham’s car swerved and J.R. Hildebrand clipped him. Hildebrand went airborne while Cunningham went into the wall.
“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,” said Danica Patrick, who was in her final race as a full-time IndyCar driver before heading to NASCAR stock car racing.
“There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered,” added Patrick, who was among the drivers who had predicted a chaotic race given the high speeds in qualifying and the jam-packed 34-car field.
Wheldon, traveling behind the cars that initiated the crash, couldn’t avoid the mayhem.
“I saw two cars touch each other up in front of me and then I tried to slow down, couldn’t slow down,” Canadian 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.”
Tracy had reported that a medical team was frantically attending Wheldon before the driver was airlifted to hospital.
The official confirmation of his death came about two hours after the race was stopped.
“One mistake can take 15 people out, and that’s what happened there,” Brazilian Tony Kanaan said. “I’ve never seen such a mess in my entire career.”
Despite two Indianapolis 500 triumphs — including this year’s race in May — and his 2005 title, Wheldon had not been able to gain a full-time IndyCar ride this season.
He was racing from the back of the field in pursuit of a $5 million prize offered by IndyCar to a non-series driver who could win the finale.
“This is going to be an amazing show,” Wheldon had written in a blog for USA Today newspaper. “It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out.”
The crash ended Australian Will Power’s bid to overtake Dario Franchitti and claim the series title.
Power, complaining of back pain, was sent to hospital to be checked out. Hildebrand was hospitalized overnight after complaining of dizziness and Pippa Mann was treated for a burn on her right hand.
“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.”
IndyCar’s last fatality was the death of driver Paul Dana at the Homestead circuit in Florida in 2006 in a crash during pre-race practice. Wheldon won the race later that afternoon.
Scotland’s Franchitti, who secured his third straight series crown and fourth overall, fought for composure in his cockpit as the drivers formed up for the tribute laps.
“One minute, you’re joking around during driver intros,” a stunned Franchitti said, “and the next, Dan’s gone.”
“Everybody in IndyCar considered Dan a friend,” he added. “Dan was one of those special, special people, from when he first showed up at IndyCar.”
Wheldon, who moved to the United States in 1999, got his first IndyCar series ride in 2002 and his first victory the next season.
In 2005, he became the first Englishman since the great Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Indianapolis 500.
In this year’s race he was a distant second to Hildebrand until the leader lost control and nipped the wall on the last lap, allowing Wheldon to speed past.
At the traditional post-race photo opportunity, Wheldon was joined by his two-year-old son Sebastian and his wife, Susie, who held their son Oliver, then two months old.
“We’re going to miss him,” said IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi. “Everybody in IndyCar died a little today.”