IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon died from severe injuries Sunday in a blazing 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when his car flew over another on lap 13 and smashed into the wall just outside turn two in the Las Vegas Indy 300, the final race of the IndayCar season.
Wheldon, the 33-year-old two-time Indianapolis 500 champ, was set to claim a $5 million dollar bonus that was part of a league promotion for drivers who didn't compete full-time in the series this year if he won Sunday's race. The Emberton, England driver was the only driver to accept that challenge. The race in Las Vegas was only his third IndyCar race this year.
Drivers were told of Wheldon's death in a closed-door meeting, according to IndyCar spokeswoman Denise Abbott, about two hours after the fiery, smoky crash that many drivers said was the worst they had ever seen. Wheldon was taken to the hospital by helicopter.
IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners, have decided to end the race. In honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute to in his honor.
Pippa Mann and J. R. Hildebrand were also transported to a hospital after complaining of dizziness. Championship contender Will Power was transported because of back pain.
The wreck left driver Townsend Bell upside down in his car, and smoldering cars and debris littered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway of the 1.5-mile oval. The race was stopped following the accidents while crews worked on fences and removed smashed cars.
Just a horrendous accident, said Paul Tracy, who was involved in the accident. Lot of prayers right now for Dan, because it's going to be a long recovery. They're scrambling in there right now. There's 20 doctors in there.
Wheldon started in the back of the pack as part of the promotion but quickly worked his way through the 34-car field before the wreck caught on video. There were 34 cars entered in the season finale - one more entry than the Indianapolis 500 had, thus making it a far more crowded track than usual.
It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible, said Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start before going to NASCAR full-time in 2012. 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.
Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice. Their concerns became reality when contact on turn two sent cars flying through the air, crashing into each other and into the outside wall and catch fence.
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.
Wheldon was replaced by Hildebrand at Panther Racing at the start of this season, and failed to land another ride. He put together a deal for the Indianapolis 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport, then won the race in dramatic fashion when Hildebrand wrecked going into the final turn. Wheldon sailed past for his second Indy 500 victory.
Despite his 2011 win, he was unable to put together anything for the rest of the season and spent the last several months doing television work and helping Herta Autosport test the prototype car the team will use next season. Then, he laid claim to IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard's offer to pay $5 million if any non-regular series driver entered and won the season finale at Las Vegas. Although Wheldon, winner of 14 career races on ovals, did not meet the spirit of the promotion, Bernard let him participate in the challenge.
Wheldon would have split the $5 million with a randomly-selected fan.
With Patrick's full-time move to NASCAR, Wheldon was expected to replace Danica Patrick next season in the Go-Daddy-sponsored car for Andretti Autosport.
Points-leader Dario Franchitti avoided the crash, and seemed stunned as he waited out the clean-up on pit road.
Franchitti clinched his third straight title and fourth overall after Power went out.
You saw what happened, one small mistake from somebody, he added.
Wheldon raced for Michael Andretti's team previously from 2003 through 2005 when he won the championship. Wheldon won 16 races in his nine-year IndyCar career.
Watch the horrific crash below: