Dan Wheldon, who won his second Indianapolis 500 title five months ago, died of injuries suffered in yesterday’s 15-car crash that halted the Las Vegas Indy 300 auto race. He was 33.
The Englishman’s car went airborne and struck part of the fence outside Turn 2 on the 11th of 200 laps in the race. Wheldon was transported by helicopter to University Hospital in Las Vegas, where he was pronounced dead.
Other drivers and spectators were informed of Wheldon’s death about two hours after the incident. IndyCar Chief Executive Randy Bernard told reporters that Wheldon sustained “unsurvivable injuries,” without being specific.
The race was canceled and Wheldon’s No. 77 was the only number listed on the scoreboard at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where some drivers and crew members broke down in tears after learning Wheldon had died. Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 title on May 29, with his first coming in 2005.
“I’m numb and speechless,” fellow driver Dario Franchitti, Wheldon’s former teammate and friend since the age of 6, said at a news conference. “One minute you’re joking around in driver intros and the next Dan’s gone.”
IndyCar racing features open-wheel cars in which drivers top speeds of 220 mph (354 kph). Wheldon’s death is the first by a driver on the IndyCar circuit since Paul Dana was killed in 2006 during a practice run ahead of a season-opening race in Miami. Dale Earnhardt was the last driver to die during a top-tier Nascar event, at the 2001 Daytona 500.
Jeff Grange, the medical director at California Speedway from 1995-2009, said IndyCar is “second to nobody” in ensuring the sport is as safe as possible.
“In high-speed incidents, certain things like cervical spine fractures or torn aortas are unsurvivable,” Grange, the emergency medical services director at Loma Linda University Medical Center, said in a telephone interview. “It’s certainly a high-risk sport. We’ve continued to learn and make it better and better to minimize tragedies, but I don’t think anything will make it 100 percent safe.”
After receiving word of Wheldon’s death, 19 drivers participated in a five-lap tribute, driving slowly around the 1.5-mile oval three-wide as crew members from the race teams stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the pit row.
The crash involved 15 of the 34 cars at the rear of the field in IndyCar’s season finale in Las Vegas.
“I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,” said Franchitti, who wasn’t involved in the crash. “I love hard racing but that to me is not really what it’s about.”
Contact on Turn 2 in the early stages of the race caused a chain reaction of fiery collisions and Wheldon’s car was among several that launched into the air after flying up and over other cars. The track was left strewn with debris following the crash, putting a stop to the race.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said driver Ryan Briscoe, who was ahead of the crash and drove through the smoking wreckage as he came back around the track.
Wheldon had started at the rear of the pack in Las Vegas and would have received a $5 million bonus if he’d won the race, part of a promotion for the inaugural IndyCar World Championships. He had moved into 24th place and couldn’t avoid the cars wrecking in front of him at the time of the incident.
Wheldon, who was from Emberton, England, and lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, is survived by his wife, Susie, and two sons under the age of three. He had 16 victories in 134 IndyCar series races, including his first Indy 500 win in 2005 with Andretti Green racing.
“Dan brought such enthusiasm and passion to the sport not often seen in motorsports,” Andretti Autosports said in a statement. “We will remember Dan’s tremendous racing accomplishments with our team as well his infectious personality. Dan is one of IndyCar’s greatest champions.”
Wheldon in May won the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 when rookie J.R. Hildebrand struck a wall on the final corner while in the lead. Wheldon was photographed the next day kissing the bricks at the racetrack with the trophy behind him and his infant son Sebastian sitting next to him.
“We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and it’s what we love to do. Days like today it doesn’t matter,” Franchitti said yesterday. “I think everybody in the IndyCar series considered Dan a friend. He was one of those special, special people.”