American open wheel racing has lost one of its most prominent faces.

Dan Wheldon, the defending 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner, died Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in a horrific 15-car wreck during lap 13 at the IndyCar Series finale.

Wheldon, 33, had to be extricated from his vehicle and was airlifted to University Medical Center after his car flew over another vehicle and landed in a catch fence just outside Turn Two.

Drivers described the fiery crash as the worst they had ever seen. Several cars burst into flames, and debris was spread all over the track,

Officials decided to call the race, and drivers did a five-lap tribute for Wheldon.

The Emberton, England, native had won 16 races in his nine-year career, including the Indy 500 in 2005, and was considered among the most popular drivers in the sport.

Wheldon started at the back of the 34-car field and could have had a payday of $5 million if he won the race. However, Wheldon couldn't steer clear of a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.

Randy Bernard, the chief executive officer for IndyCar, officially announced Wheldon's death two hours later.

IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries, 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.

Many competitors and fans were left in tears after the announcement of Wheldon's passing.

Danica Patrick posted this message on Twitter: There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi and the kids that god will give them strength.

The scene was chaotic, as it was difficult to tell which car was which, as some didn't slow down. J.R. Hildebrand and Pippa Mann were also injured in the crash, and both are expected to remain in the hospital overnight. Townsend Bell was left upside down upon the accident.

Some points of impact were so devastating workers had to patch holes in the asphalt, according to CBS News.

Points-leader Dario Franchitti avoided the crash. His wife, actress Ashley Judd, was seen dabbing her eyes from tears after learning about Wheldon's fate.

Wheldon's death marks the first fatality in IndyCar since Paul Dana was killed at Homestead in 2006.

Here is the video from the accident: