Veteran driver Dan Wheldon, who won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time this year, died from injuries suffered Sunday when his car was entangled in a horrific 15-car wreck early in the IndyCar series’ season-ending race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Englishman was 33.
As the 34-car field moved through the first turn of Lap 11 on the 1.5-mile oval track at speeds of more than 200 mph, Wheldon was running 25th when cars began spinning in front of him.
As the cars piled up in an instant, Wheldon’s No. 77 car slammed into another car in front of his and went airborne before crashing into the fence in Turn 2 and briefly catching fire, video replays showed.
Simultaneously, the car driven by championship contender Will Power also went airborne, others briefly caught fire as they crashed and debris was sprayed in all directions.
After Wheldon was airlifted to a nearby hospital, Randy Bernard, chief executive of the Izod IndyCar Series, announced his death “from unsurvivable injuries.” Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and two young sons.
“I just feel for his family,” a tearful Danica Patrick, who is leaving the IndyCar series after this year for NASCAR stock car racing, told a television audience. “He’ll be missed.”
It was the first on-track fatality in IndyCar racing since 2006, when Paul Dana was killed in a practice crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Three other drivers — Power, JR Hildebrand and Pippa Mann — also reportedly were taken to the hospital for evaluation. There was no immediate word on their condition.
The rest of the race was canceled. But the remaining drivers held a somber salute to Wheldon by climbing back into their cars and, lined up three wide, slowly circled the track for five laps.
As they did so, fans in the grandstands stood and dozens of race-team personnel and safety workers walked to the edge of pit road facing the track, many of them wiping away tears. A bagpipes version of “Amazing Grace” played on the speedway speaker system.
“It is hard to put into words how sad this is for all of us,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. “On the track we compete, but at the end of the day we are like a big family and today we lost a part of that.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Jeff Belskus said “we are incredibly saddened,” adding that Wheldon was “a fantastic husband, father and man — a good friend to so many in this sport.”
Five months ago Wheldon had stunned the motor racing world by winning the speedway’s famed Indy 500 after Hildebrand, who appeared to have the race won, crashed into the wall on the final lap.
It was Wheldon’s first race of the season because, despite winning 15 IndyCar races up to that point and capturing the series’ 2005 championship — the same year in which he won his first Indy 500 — Wheldon had been unable to secure a full-time ride this year.
Wheldon’s fateful race in Las Vegas also came about via unusual circumstances. He agreed to be the driver in a challenge whereby he would start at the rear of the field and, if he won, split $5 million with a fan.
Wheldon raced two weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway as a warmup for the Las Vegas race.
A stylish dresser and a superstitious racer — he tapped his car on the nose three times before climbing in — Wheldon also was a student of racing history and had made appearances as a TV racing analyst this year when he wasn’t driving.
Wheldon revered the Indy 500 in particular, and shed tears after winning the 100th anniversary race again in May and kneeling to kiss the yard of bricks at the track’s finish line.
The Las Vegas crash was one of the worst seen in IndyCar racing in recent memory, both in terms of its violence and the number of cars involved.
Although there have been significant advances in safety in recent years, including so-called SAFER energy-absorbing walls and head-and-neck restraints for drivers, the wreck Sunday again underlined the ever-present danger of a sport in which the cars are racing at such high speeds.
Wheldon and others were averaging 220 mph or faster in their practice sessions at Las Vegas.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” driver Ryan Briscoe said of the deadly accident. “The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from ‘Terminator’ or something.”
Because the race was canceled, Dario Franchitti — who entered the race with an 18-point lead over Power in the title standings— won his third consecutive IndyCar championship and fourth overall.
Peltz reported from Los Angeles.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.