LAS VEGAS - October 16, 2011 Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died after his car became ensnared in a fiery 15-car pileup, flew over another vehicle and hit the catch fence just outside turn 2 in a season-ending race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "Things happen in this kind of racing," said Wade Cunningham, also caught up in the wreck. "It's so close. Not much room for error. I was near the front of what caused all this, so I'm not thrilled about it. At this point, whose fault it was is kind of immaterial." The green flag had barely stopped waving when disaster struck. Wheldon, driving from the back of the field for a chance at $5 million, was in the middle of the pack when he drove into a tangle of cars careening off each other in every direction. Unable to avoid the massive wreck unfolding before him, Wheldon clipped another car and went hurtling through the air, his car bursting into flames as it flew into a fence. After just 11 laps, the race was over. Two hours later, track officials announced that Wheldon was dead. The Englishman was 33. "One minute you're joking around at driver intros and 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." With the speed - close to 225 mph during practice - and a crowded 34-car field, a big worry was aggressive driving early in the 200-lap race. Chaos started when two cars touched tires and almost no one had time to react. 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 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. "It's unfortunate that early on in the race they've got to be racing so close. [...]" Team Penske owner Roger Penske said. "You always worry about those at these mile-and-a-halves at the speed and with this many cars." Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power, were hurt in the pileup. Wheldon was airlifted from the track to University Medical Center; news of his death came from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard:
"IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed
away from unsurvivable injuries," he said. "Our thoughts and
prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners,
have decided to end the race."
In his honor, drivers, many sobbing openly, took part in a
five-lap salute around the 1.5-mile oval as thousands of fans stood
and cheered from the grandstand.
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.
"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."
IndyCar has not had a fatality since Paul Dana was killed at
Homestead in 2006, during a crash in a morning warmup. Wheldon won
the race later that day.
The accident appeared to start when 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
Some of those cars slowed, others didn't, and others spun in
front of Wheldon and Power. There was so much confusion 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.
"It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as
possible," said Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start.
"It was debris everywhere across the whole track. You could smell
the smoke. You could see the billowing smoke on the back straight
from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving
around. You could see cars scattered."
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 the Las Vegas
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, which would have been split
with a fan.
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 said: "I agree. We'll discuss that and sort it
But driver Oriol Servia didn't mince words: "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," he said. "We knew if
could happen, but it's just really sad."
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
"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 would offer his resignation to
the IndyCar board of directors if ABC's broadcast didn't pull a .8
ranking. His goal was to improve upon last year's season finale's
horrible television rating and give the series some momentum for a
strong season in 2013 with the introduction of a new car and new
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
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 and
representatives from each team stood at attention in honor of
"What can you say? We're going to miss him," Ganassi said.
"Everybody in IndyCar died a little today."
AP Writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna
Fryer in Charlotte and AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami
contributed to this report.
Indy 500 winner killed in 15-car pileup
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