Two-time Indianapolis 500 winnerÂ Dan WheldonÂ 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 atÂ Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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.
“Things happen in this kind of racing,” saidÂ 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.”
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.
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.
Wheldon, who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, was flown by helicopter to University Medical Center in Las Vegas for treatment before his death was announced two hours later.
“IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.”
IndyCar bosses decided to end the Las Vegas race following the crash. Instead, the drivers took part in a five-lap salute, with Wheldon’s number 77 the only number on the scoreboard.
The Buckinghamshire-born star, 33, was one of 15 drivers involved in a crash at the second corner on lap 13 of the season-ending race.
Wheldon, who began IndyCar racing in 2002, was series champion in 2005 and won the Indy 500 in 2005 and 2011. Wheldon leaves his wife Susie and their two young sons.
“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,” he added.
Despite winning this year’s Indy 500, Wheldon couldn’t put together a full-time ride this season. He landed in the Las Vegasrace 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.
Lewis Hamilton, 2008 Formula 1 world champion, said: “This is a tragic loss at such a young age. He was an extremely talented driver.”
He added: ” 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. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.”
Formula 1 driver Jenson Button wrote on Twitter: “Just woken up to the most horrific news. Dan Wheldon RIP.” He also tweeted: “I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90s, a true fighter. We’ve lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy.”
The scrapping of the race meant Scotland’s Dario Franchitti secured a third straight series crown, as title rival Will Power was also caught up in the accident. But Franchitti’s only thoughts were for Wheldon and the 38-year-old was in tears in his car before setting off on the five-lap salute.
“Right now I’m numb and speechless. One minute you’re joking around in driver intros and the next he’s gone,” said Franchitti. “He was six years old when I first met him. He was this little kid and the next thing you know he was my team-mate.