Dan Wheldon dies after IndyCar crash

Updated: October 17, 2011, 2:32 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

LAS VEGAS -- Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the most popular drivers in open-wheel racing, died Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a horrific multicar crash on Lap 11 of the IndyCar Series season finale.

Officials decided to call the race, but the drivers, many sobbing openly, did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon. IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard made the official announcement of Wheldon's death without further comment.

"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 honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute to in his honor."

Wheldon was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1:19 p.m. local time Sunday and taken to University Medical Center, becoming the first IndyCar driver to die on the track since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

"One minute you're joking around at driver intros. The next, Dan's gone," said Dario Franchitti, whose wife, actress Ashley Judd, had to bring him a box of tissues. "I lost, we lost, a good friend. Everybody in the IndyCar series considered him a friend. He was such a good guy. He was a charmer."

Wheldon, 33 and the 2005 series champion from Emberton, England, was competing in only his third IndyCar race of the season, trying to win the race and earn a $5 million bonus that was part of a league promotion for driver who didn't compete full-time in the series this year.

Wheldon was the only driver to accept the challenge. This year's Indy 500 was the second time Wheldon had won the prestigious event. He also won it in 2005.

Wheldon was expected to replace Danica Patrick next season in the Go-Daddy-sponsored car for Andretti Autosport. Patrick is moving to NASCAR full-time in 2012.

Wheldon's family thanks everyone for their condolences, messages of sympathy and support at this very sad time, according to a statement released by his agency, GP Sports Management Ltd.

"They will make a further statement in due course, but in the meantime have asked that they be allowed to grieve in private," the statement said.

Andretti Autosport, the team with which Wheldon won the 2005 Indy 500, had agreed to a contract early Sunday for Wheldon to replace Patrick next season. The deal was supposed to be signed after the race.

[+] EnlargeDan Wheldon
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireIndyCar will not return to Las Vegas in 2012 following Dan Wheldon's death in the Oct. 16 season finale this season.

Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power were injured in the wreck.

The race was only minutes old when Wheldon, who started at the back of the 34-car field and was in position for a $5 million payday if he had won, couldn't steer clear of a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.

Within seconds, several cars burst into flames and debris covered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway. Some points of impact were so devastating workers had to patch holes in the asphalt.

Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it went airborne and sailed into what's called the catch fence, which sits over a barrier that's designed to give a bit when cars make contact. Rescue workers were at Wheldon's car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.

"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. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere. So it was scary, and your first thoughts are hoping that no one is hurt because there's just stuff everywhere. Crazy."

Also injured in the crash were JR Hildebrand and Pippa Mann. Both will remain in the hospital overnight. IndyCar said Mann was being treated for a burn to her right pinkie finger and will be released Monday morning; Hildebrand was awake and alert but will be held overnight for further evaluation. Power was evaluated and released. An autopsy was planned Monday for Wheldon.

Patrick There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi (Wheldon's wife) and the kids that god will give them strength.

-- Danica Patrick, via Twitter

"What a tremendously sad day, my thoughts are with the entire Wheldon family... Dan's passion for IndyCar racing will be sorely missed...." Hildebrand said on Twitter Sunday.

The accident appeared to start when Wade Cunningham's car swerved on the track and Hildebrand drove over the left rear of Cunningham's car. Hildebrand appeared to go airborne, and Cunningham's car shot up into the wall, setting off a chain reaction among the cars behind him.

Some of those cars slowed, others didn't, and others spun in front of Wheldon and Power. There was so much chaos on the track it was hard to tell who was driving what car.

Power appeared to fly over Alex Lloyd's car, rolling into the catch fence and landing on its right side. His in-car camera showed one of the front tires coming toward him in the cockpit.

Wheldon then appeared to drive over a car driven by Paul Tracy, who seemed to be slowing down. Wheldon, however, went airborne and spun into the fence.

The track was red-flagged following the accidents while crews worked on fences and removed smashed cars.

"There are no words for today," Patrick tweeted. "Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi (Wheldon's wife) and the kids that god will give them strength."

"We are incredibly saddened at the passing of Dan Wheldon," Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and CEO Jeff Belskus said. "He was a great champion of the Indianapolis 500 and a wonderful ambassador for the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of motorsports. Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man -- a good friend to so many in this sport. His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track."

Wheldon, who came to the United States from England in 1999, won 16 times in his IndyCar career and was the series champion in 2005.

Despite winning this year's Indy 500, Wheldon couldn't put together a full-time ride this season. He landed in this race thanks to Bernard's promise of $5 million to any moonlighting driver who could win the IndyCar season finale at Vegas. Although there were no takers, Bernard refused to scrap the idea and Wheldon was declared eligible for the prize.

Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.

"We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat. And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do," driver Oriol Servia said. "We knew if could happen, but it's just really sad."

Asked about speed after the crash, Wheldon's former boss Chip Ganassi said, "There'll be plenty of time in the offseason to talk about that. Now is not the time to talk about that."

And Franchitti, who clinched the 2011 IndyCar title Sunday, said: "I agree. We'll discuss that and sort it out."

The race was ruled incomplete, and IndyCar officials ruled that the championship points would include races up through the Kentucky Indy 300 on Oct. 2. Franchitti held an 18-point lead over Power entering Sunday's race.

Wheldon had been providing blog posts for USA Today in the days leading up to the Las Vegas race, and in one posted Saturday to the newspaper's website he spoke of how he expected Sunday to be "pure entertainment."

"This is going to be an amazing show," Wheldon wrote. "The two championship contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power, are starting right next to each other in the middle of the grid. 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."

The accident spoiled what Bernard had hoped would be a showcase event for the struggling IndyCar Series.

The second-year CEO worked the entire season on turning the finale into a spectacle, and said he'd offer his resignation to the IndyCar board of directors if ABC's broadcast didn't pull a .8 rating. His goal was to improve upon last year's season finale's horrible television rating and give the series some momentum for what's hoped to be a strong season in 2013 with the introduction of a new car and new manufacturers.

So Bernard poured everything into Las Vegas, renting the speedway from owner Bruton Smith and agreeing to promote the event himself. He landed enough sponsorship to at least break even on race, and the $5 million challenge bought him an enormous amount of publicity the entire year.

Bernard got the Las Vegas Strip to close to stage a parade of cars, hosted industry parties and a blackjack tournament all to boost interest in the race. He even got MGM Grand Resorts to offer a pair of tickets to anyone staying this weekend in one of the chain's 14 properties.

But what was hoped to be a day of celebration quickly turned somber.

When drivers returned to the track for the tribute laps, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard. Franchitti sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the memorial ride. The sound of "Danny Boy" echoed around the track, followed by "Amazing Grace." Hundreds of crew workers from each team stood at attention in honor of Wheldon.

"What can you say? We're going to miss him," Ganassi said. "Everybody in IndyCar died a little today."

Formula One champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton hailed Wheldon as a "true fighter" and an "inspirational" figure.

Button recalled Wheldon as being a star of the British karting circuit in the 1990s.

"I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90s, a true fighter," Button said on Twitter.

"We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy ... I can't begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time."

Wheldon, who was born in Buckinghamshire, a county just north of London, also was an inspiration to Hamilton after deciding to try his luck in the U.S. following a successful junior career during which he won eight British karting titles.

"Dan was a racer I'd followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motor sport ladder in the UK," said Hamilton, Button's teammate at McLaren.

"He was an extremely talented driver. As a British guy who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration. This is a tragic loss at such a young age."

Hamilton finished second in Sunday's Korean Grand Prix, with Button fourth.

Wheldon had been scheduled to compete next weekend at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in the Gold Coast 600 race, teaming with V8 Supercar champion James Courtney as a co-driver for two 186-mile touring car races on Saturday and Sunday.

Five other IndyCar drivers were scheduled to compete on the Gold Coast, including Power. V8 series chairman Tony Cochrane said he expects some of the American-based drivers to pull out.

"If any driver wishes to pull out in respect, we would fully appreciate and understand that and be as supportive as we can," Cochrane said Monday. "And we will find replacement drivers for anyone who wishes to drop out this weekend. We will cross that bridge and worry about that when we get over the initial shock and deal with it in due course."

Cochrane said a memorial service would be held on Saturday morning at the Gold Coast track.

"He was very much looking forward to having his first ... go in a V8 Supercar this coming weekend," Cochrane said. "We have just been reminded in the most tragic of circumstances what can happen in motorsport. This is a terrible day."

Information from ESPN.com senior writer Terry Blount and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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