LAS VEGAS, NV - A deadly crash just 11 laps into the 200 lap IZOD IndyCar Series Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday has killed two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon, driving the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara, was caught up in a 15-car wreck that started when New Zealand’s Wade Cunningham ran into the back of Canada’s James Hinchcliffe’s No. 06 Newman Haas Racing car on the backstretch.
At that point all hell broke loose.
Cars were bouncing off of one another like a fiery carnival ride gone off the rails.
Wheldon, coming around to the scene of the original accident at full speed of approximately 220 m.p.h., ran over the rear wheel of Toronto’s Paul Tracy’s car and launched into the air, eventually ending up in the catch fence that surrounds the backstretch at the 11/2-mile banked oval LVMS.
“I saw two cars touch each other in front of me and I tried to slow down,”
Tracy said. “Dan’s car came over my back wheel, over the top of me and it was a horrendous accident.”
Wheldon, 33, was transported by medivac helicopter to University Hospital in Las Vegas where attempts to revive him failed.
As soon as his family was notified, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard cancelled the remainder of the race.
“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 honour of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute in his honour.”
It was the first IndyCar fatality since Paul Dana was killed during practice at Miami Homestead Speedway in 2006 and the first open-wheel death during a race since Canada’s Greg Moore was killed at California Speedway in the finale of the 1999 Champ Car World Series season.
Wheldon, winner of the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500s, had started in the rear of the grid as part of a promotion that would have paid him half of a $5-million bonus to win the race.
The prize was originally intended to lure some NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers to Las Vegas but when none took up the challenge, IndyCar bosses offered it to Wheldon who had not raced since winning Indy in May.
Several drivers, including Tracy, were critical of the expanding the grid to 34 cars — with some drivers making only their first or second starts of the season — and of even attempting to race on a track as smooth and fast at LVMS.
In practice cars were easily topping the 220 m.p.h. mark setting what Tracy felt was a dangerous scenario for inexperienced drivers.
“There is a lot of frustration out there among drivers,” he said. “It’s disappointing that there was a lot of young drivers out there who really don’t know how to react to situations like what happened.
“It’s just a bad situation.”
Among the 15 cars involved in the wreck was Will Power who was battling Dario Franchitti for the 2011 championship. He was also transported to hospital suffering from injuries to his lower back.
With the cancellation of the race, Franchitti was awarded his fourth IndyCar title.
It certainly was not the way he had planned to win. Franchitti, who has known Wheldon since the pair were boys back in the United Kingdom, was devastated afterwards when he met with the media.
“I can’t even think about the championship right now,” he said. “I just can’t talk about that.
“We as race car drivers give this impression of ourselves that winning races and winning championships is all that we love to do. Then on days like today all that doesn’t really matter.”
Franchitti said that while Wheldon cultivated a devil-may-care attitude he was always, first and foremost family man with a wife and two sons.
“We were friends,” he said. “He was one of those special, special people from the time he showed up in IndyCar as this kind of brash guy, but he was a charmer.”
IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi, for whom Wheldon raced after winning a championship with Andretti Green Racing in 2005, called the Briton a “winner.”
“When I signed him to come over to my team I figured out why he was winning all those races,” Ganassi said. “He just had a way about him. He could smell the front. And when he got a sniff of the front that was it.
“A little bit of everyone in IndyCar died today.”