LAS VEGAS —
Every race car driver heads onto the track understanding this race could be the last and hoping it won’t be. On Sunday, IndyCar drivers got a harsh reminder when the worst happened to one of their own.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died when his car got caught up in a 15-car pileup, sailed over another vehicle and smashed into a catch fence at IndyCar’s 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 moving through 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. “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 coming around turn 2 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,” 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. Also injured in the crash were JR Hildebrand and Pippa Mann. An autopsy was planned Monday for Wheldon.
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.
“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 had 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.
“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.
Wheldon had been providing blog posts for USA Today in the days leading up to the Las Vegas race.
“This is going to be an amazing show,” Wheldon wrote in a post Saturday to the newspaper’s website. “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.”
“What can you say? We’re going to miss him,” Ganassi said. “Everybody in IndyCar died a little today.”