By Brandon Reid
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, 33, died Sunday, Oct. 16, after his car became involved in a fiery 15-car pileup at Las Vegas Motorspeedway.
The wreck occurred on lap 11 when two cars touched tires. Wheldon had started the race in last place, 34th, but had moved up to 24th. Although he was still behind the cars that initiated the pileup, traveling at 220 mph, he had no way to avoid the wreck.
Wheldon’s car flew over another vehicle and landed in a catch fence just outside turn 2. He was airlifted from the track to University Medical Center, and his death was announced about two hours later.
JR Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and championship contender Will Power were also injured in the wreck.
Video replays showed Wheldon’s car turning over as it went airborne. Rescue workers arrived quickly, and some began frantically waving for more help.
Former Roscoe resident Danica Patrick, who was running in her last scheduled IndyCar race before moving to NASCAR full-time, narrowly avoided the wreck. She was running low coming out of the second turn when one of the fiery airborne cars sailed just to her right.
In a live ABC interview immediately following the wreck, Patrick said, “There was debris everywhere, you could smell smoke and see the billowing smoke.
“I hope, I hope everyone is OK. I heard about Dan …,” said Patrick, her voice trailing off. “You just don’t want to be in that position.”
IndyCar officials canceled the race following the accident. After learning of Wheldon’s death, the drivers returned to the track for a five-lap salute during which Wheldon’s No. 77 appeared at the top of the leader board.
Wheldon came to the United States from England in 1999 and won 16 times in his IndyCar career. He was the series champion in 2005.
Although he won this year’s Indy 500, he still failed to gain a full-time ride this season. Wheldon was expected to replace Patrick next season in the Go-Daddy-sponsored car for Andretti Autosport.
Wheldon could have earned $5 million had he won in Las Vegas.
In addition to winning this year’s Indy 500, Wheldon also won in 2005. His 2005 victory was partially overshadowed by Patrick’s performance in her first Indy 500. Patrick had attained the highest starting position of any female driver in Indy 500 history (fourth), and she became the first female to lead a lap at the Indy 500. After leading 19 laps, Patrick eventually finished fourth, giving up the lead to Wheldon with fewer than 10 laps remaining.
“There are no words for today,” Patrick tweeted following Wheldon’s death Oct. 16. “Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi (Wheldon’s wife) and the kids that god will give them strength.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and CEO Jeff Belskus said: “We are incredibly saddened at the passing of Dan Wheldon. He was a great champion of the Indianapolis 500 and a wonderful ambassador for the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of motorsports. Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man — a good friend to so many in this sport. His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track.”
Wheldon leaves wife, Susie, and sons Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, 7 months.
Dario Franchitti, who had an 18-point advantage over Power heading into the final race of the season at Las Vegas, claimed his third consecutive IZOD IndyCar Series championship and fourth in five years.
Meantime, IndyCar honored Patrick prior to the Oct. 16 race with a video highlighting her career.
Patrick was voted Most Popular Driver of the IndyCar series the past six years and is favored to win again in 2011. Between 2005 and 2011, Patrick started 109 races, claimed three poles and won the 2008 Indy Japan 300.
Her current team owner, Michael Andretti, said: “Danica did bring, I think, new fans to our sport and hopefully those fans aren’t here only because of Danica. I’m sure she brought fans that normally wouldn’t have watched it but now have become fans of IndyCar racing.”
Patrick, 32, will now focus on racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where she has raced a partial schedule since last year. She also is scheduled to drive in up to 10 premier Sprint Cup races. She will race for a team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.