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Dan Wheldon killed in Las Vegas 300

ESPNF1 Staff
October 16, 2011 « Petrov hit with five-place India grid penalty | Whitmarsh lauds 'inspirational' Hamilton »

British IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon has died following a 15-car pile-up during the Las Vegas 300, the final race of the IndyCar season.

Officials decided to abandon 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 honour of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute."

Wheldon, 33 and the 2005 series champion from Emberton in Buckinghamshire 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 drivers 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.

He 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. 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.

Wheldon was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1.20pm 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. "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."

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 tyres.

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 the catch fence. 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."

The accident appeared to start when Wade Cunningham's car swerved on the track and JR 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 tyres 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.

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, he 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 it could happen, but it's just really sad."

Dario Franchitti hugs a crew member after the accident © Getty Images
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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 to 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."

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."

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