The season-ending IZOD IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas did not go the way anyone wanted it to. Mayhem struck just 11 laps into the event, as 15 cars were involved in one of the scariest looking crashes in the history of the sport. Tragically, Dan Wheldon lost his life in the accident.
The 2005 series Champion and two-time Indy 500 winner came up behind a pack of cars in the wreck, and his car went airborne. His car spun end over end, and the cockpit went directly into the catch fence at 220 mph. Wheldon, who was just 33, is survived by wife Susie and two young boys.
Dan started at the rear of the field in 34th position, and if he won, he and a fan would have split $5 million. He had passed ten cars before the accident that claimed his life occurred on lap 11.
The day was supposed to be about the conclusion of the battle between Dario Franchitti and Will Power for the series Championship. Power was caught up in the accident, so we already knew that Dario had won the title for the third straight year, his fourth in the last five years.
This was one Championship that nobody wants to celebrate.
Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds on the 1.5-mile oval after they reached nearly 225 mph during practice. In addition to those speeds, there were more cars in this race than the Indianapolis 500, and the track is one mile smaller.
The race was red-flagged for over two hours, and a drivers only meeting was called just before we learned the fate of Wheldon. The race was officially ended, and the drivers chose to go back out and give Wheldon a five lap salute in a three-wide formation.
Dan had been testing the 2012 IndyCar that will now be the standard for all teams. Ironically, the new car design protects the rear wheels to prevent launches like the ones that Wheldon and Power experienced today.
Dan was excited about the opportunity to test the new car, and even helped out on some of the IndyCar broadcasts for the Versus channel. Whether he was behind the wheel or in front of the camera, he always had a smile on his face.
Michael Andretti announced earlier this morning that Wheldon had signed a contract to drive the GoDaddy car for his team in the 2012 season, replacing Danica Patrick.
The scene was described as “scary” and “unreal” by many of the drivers. Davey Hamilton, who was seriously injured in a 2001 crash at Texas, said it was “Without a doubt the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my racing career.”
Ryan Briscoe had this to say about the incident; “I’ve never seen anything like it. 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 first in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere. So it was scary.”
Dan loved racing, and he loved Indianapolis. His love and appreciation for the Indy 500 is something we wish every driver had. His enthusiasm and excitement after winning his second 500 this year really proved that. He was overjoyed and charismatic in everything he did. He truly had an infectious personality that everyone loved.
Wheldon’s racing career began at the age of 4, when he began driving go karts. While racing in England, he won eight British National Titles, and moved to the U.S. in 1999. In 2002 he finally made it to the IndyCar Series, where he would go on to win 16 races, and the 2005 series Championship.
A few years later, NASCAR and Formula 1 were trying to land the rising star, but in the end he decided that the IndyCar Series was where he was supposed to be. “The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500,” Wheldon said in 2005. “It would be really difficult to leave this series because of that race.”
That kind of appreciation and love for this sport is what made him so popular with fans, teams, and other drivers. He is already missed by us all.
I think Chip Ganassi described this somber day the best; “What can you say? We’re going to miss him. Everybody in IndyCar died a little today.”