Auto racing lost an endearing personality on Sunday afternoon. Dan Wheldon, the British driver who won two Indianapolis 500 titles – including this year’s race – died in a horrific 15-car wreck during the last event of the IndyCar season, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was 33.
Each time they start their engines, race-car drivers risk their lives. When 34 cars, traveling at speeds approaching 225 miles per hour, jostle for positions in a confined track space, tragedies seem unavoidable. IndyCar racing, however, has been somewhat fortunate, as such fatalities are relatively rare. Since 1996, three drivers have died, in either practice or testing. Softer walls, which absorb high-speed impact, and improved helmet technology have helped.
So the surprise of Wheldon’s death hurts, whether or not you’re a racing fan. No one ever sees it coming.
IndyCar’s season finale was supposed to be a celebration. As part of a promotion, a win would have given Wheldon a $5 million bonus, which he would have had to split with a fan. Wheldon leaves behind his wife and young children, who are 2 and seven-months.
The wreck is hard to watch. Going into the race, some drivers voiced concern that the track was too fast. On lap 13, the tires of two cars touched at the second turn, starting the awful chain reaction. Several cars caught fire, spun out and hit the wall. As groups of cars maneuvered away to avoid debris, others crashed into them from behind at full-speed. Wheldon’s car turned over in the air and crashed into the fence above the wall, known as the “catch fence.” Wheldon was airlifted to the hospital after the wreck. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Wheldon died of “unsurvivable” injuries.
“It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible,” Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start, was quoted as saying in the Associated Press. “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.” Despite his Indy 500 victory, Wheldon had difficulty finding a full-time spot on a racing team. He was a strong candidate to replace Patrick for Andretti Green Racing, as Patrick moves on to NASCAR.
When the news of Wheldon’s death reached his fellow drivers, they walked around the pit area, consoling each other and their crews, with tears in their eyes. IndyCar canceled the race, and the drivers not involved in the wreck saluted Wheldon by driving five laps in his honor. Only Wheldon’s car number, 77, flashed on the top of the scoring pylon. Dario Franchitti, who clinched his fourth championship on Sunday, cried uncontrollably in his car. “I think about Susie [his wife] and the boys and I struggle to hold it together,” Franchitti said afterwards.
As the cars drove around the track, “Danny Boy,” and then “Amazing Grace,” played over the loudspeaker.
It was a touching tribute. One you never, ever want to see.