IBJNews

Two-time Indy 500 champ Wheldon dies in Vegas crash

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Dan Wheldon, who moved to the United States from his native England with hopes of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to twice prevail at his sport's most famed race, died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300.

He was 33.

Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 for the second time this May, won 16 times in his IndyCar career and was the series champion in 2005. He was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1:19 p.m. local time Sunday and taken to a nearby hospital, becoming the first IndyCar driver to die after an on-track crash since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

As word began to spread that his injuries were fatal, those at the track could not control their tears. Television cameras captured Ashley Judd, the wife of IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, dabbing at her eyes shortly before the official word came.

The remainder of the race was canceled. Drivers solemnly returned to the track for a five-lap tribute to Wheldon, almost all of them hiding their eyes behind dark sunglasses after being told their colleague was gone. As Roger Penske met with his team trackside and other drivers simply hugged those around them, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard made the announcement of Wheldon's death.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today," Bernard said.

When drivers returned to the track, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard. Franchitti sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the tribute laps. Over speakers at the track, the song "Danny Boy" blared, followed by "Amazing Grace" as hundreds of crew workers from each team stood solemnly.

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

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 could have won the race, was one of 15 cars involved in a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.

Several cars burst into flames, and debris was all over the track, some of the impact so intense that workers needed to patch holes in the asphalt.

Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it airborne and sailed into what's called the "catch fence," which sits over the SAFER 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. Bernard said Wheldon's injuries were "unsurvivable."

Wheldon's first Indianapolis 500 victory was in 2005 — he passed Danica Patrick with less than 10 laps to go that year — and his win at the sport's most famed race this year was one to particularly savor.

It came in perhaps the oddest of fashions, as he was the beneficiary of a huge gaffe by someone else.

Wheldon was in second place, far back of rookie J.R. Hildebrand approaching the final turn — when Hildebrand lost control and clipped the wall. Wheldon zipped past, and the only lap he led all day at Indianapolis was the last one. He returned to the track the next morning for the traditional photo session with the winner, kissing the bricks as his 2-year-old son Sebastian sat on the asphalt alongside him, and wife, Susie, held their then-2-month-old, Oliver.

Wheldon was almost resigned to finishing second at Indy for the third straight year, before misfortune struck Hildebrand.

"It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis," Wheldon said. "That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what's going to happen."

Such was the case again Sunday.

Wheldon was well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the fateful lap, and had no way to avoid the wrecks in front of him. There was no time to brake or steer out of trouble.

"I saw two cars touch each other up in front of me and then I tried to slow down, couldn't slow down," driver Paul Tracy said. "Then Dan's car, from what I saw in the videos, came over my back wheel and over top of me. Just a horrendous accident."

Even as a former series champion and one of the sport's top names, Wheldon did not have the financial backing to secure a full-time ride for himself this season. He kept himself busy by working as a commentator for some races and testing prototype cars that the IndyCar series will be using in the future.

IndyCar will have new cars in 2012, much of the changes done with a nod for safety. It had been a passion of Wheldon's in recent months, and he once quipped that he was a "test dummy" for the new cars by working with engineers as often as he was.

Wheldon began driving go-karts as a 4-year-old, and racing stayed with him as he attended school in England as a child, winning eight British national titles along the way. He moved to the United States in 1999, quickly trying to find sponsor money to fund his dream, and by 2002 — after stints in some lower-profile open-wheel series, such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights — he was on the IndyCar grid for the first time.

Wheldon was a fast study. He got his first IndyCar Series ride, in 2002, for two races with Panther Racing, then replaced Michael Andretti when Andretti retired the next season and won Rookie of the Year.

His first victory came the next season, in Japan, and he finished second in the championship standings behind Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. The next year, he was its champion. NASCAR teams talked to him about changing series. So did Formula One organizations.

In the end, he decided IndyCar was his calling.

"The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500," Wheldon said in 2005, not long after becoming the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1966 to prevail at the Brickyard. "It would be really difficult to leave this series because of that race."

As evidenced by the difficulty in finding sponsorships this season, it was also difficult for him to stay in the series. Even though he finished among the top 10 in IndyCar points annually from 2004 through 2010, Sunday was only Wheldon's third start of 2011.

Off the track, Wheldon had varied interests, some of which had almost nothing to do with his driving.

In 2010, he released a photo book he called "Lionheart," a coffee table book that he described as "almost like a photo biography from my career in IndyCars up until this point." He spent years editing the book, which included dozens of photos of his life away from the track, including images from his wedding.

"I wanted it to have a lot of my input," Wheldon said last year. "Obviously, it's a reflection of me."

He also wanted that book to provide his fans with a glimpse of his life that they would never have known otherwise.

"There's a lot of my wedding in there," Wheldon said. "I wanted there to be a lot of photos of my wife. She was the most beautiful bride on her wedding day the world had ever seen."

ADVERTISEMENT

  • Dan Wheldon
    My wife and I had the good fortune of meeting Dan 2 years ago. A most gracious and forthright public figure, he was the epitome of a true professional. I join those everywhere offering my deepest sympathies for his wife, sons, family and friends. Dan was an awesome talent and a great representative of the sport. He will be missed by all.
  • Farewell...
    ...Daniel The Lionhearted. 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500 Champion. Winner now and forever. We'll never forget your smile.
  • Horrific Tragedy
    RIP Dan....this shouldn't have happened.

    Let's hope your driver brethren do not allow your memory to pass without a fight. It's the IRL concept that failed all of us today. To let it survive another day is to place another driver in harm's way....and that's what the IRL/Speedway's been doing all along. It's time to clean house, and destroy this abomination called the IRL and start over. This is not working......

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Only half a million TV Viewers? And thats an increase? I knew Indycar was struggling but I didn't know it was that bad. Hell, if NASCAR hits 5 Million viewers everyone starts freaking out saying its going down hill. It has a long way to before Indycar even hits NASCAR's bad days.

  2. IU has been talking that line for years with no real progress even with the last Dean, Dr. Brater. Why will an outsider, Dr. Hess, make a difference? With no proof of additional resources (cash in the bank), and a concrete plan to move an academic model that has been outdated for decades with a faculty complacent with tenure and inertia, I can count on IU to remain the same during the tenure of Dr. Hess. One ought to look to Purdue and Notre Dame for change and innovation. It is just too bad that both of those schools do not have their own medical school. Competition might wake up IU. My guess is, that even with those additions to our State, IU will remain in its own little world squandering our State's tax dollars. Why would any donor want to contribute to IU with its track record? What is its strategy to deal with the physician shortage for our State? New leadership will not be enough for us to expect any change.

  3. How do you think the Bridges got approved? I spent a couple days researching PAC's and individual contributions to some city council members during that time. My printouts were inches thick on the two I concentrated on. Finally gave up. Was disgusted with all the donations, and who they were from. Would have taken me days and days to compile a complete list. Tried to give it to the Star reporter, but he thought it was all just fine. (and apparently he was treated well himself) He ended up being laid off or fired though. And then of course, there was land donated to the dad's club, or city, as a partial payoff. All done in the shining example of "charity." No, none of these contributions are a coincidence.

  4. I agree what kind of help or if any will be there for Dr. Ley's patients. I was a patient myself.

  5. What about the hundreds of patients who sought this doctor for the right reasons, to quit drugs. what option do these patients now have, experience horrible withdrawl or return to heroin?? those are the choices. what about the children of these former addicts who's parent(s) WILL not b able to maintain their job, for @ least 2 weeks.. There needs to b an emergency clinic opened for these patients.

ADVERTISEMENT