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Indy 500 Winner Wheldon Killed in Horrific Crash

"Like a war scene from Terminator."

by on Oct.17, 2011

A fiery crash takes the life of Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon and brings the IndyCar race in Las Vegas to a halt. Photo courtesy The Las Vegas Journal-Review.

What was supposed to be a celebration of a successful IndyCar season turned deadly when a chain reaction collision sent 15 cars careening like flaming pinballs across the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sunday, Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon pronounced dead two hours later from his injuries.

The two-time Indy 500 winner was caught up in a massive pile-up triggered when two cars touched wheels and spun out of control, Wheldon’s car launching into the air and smashing into a catch fence designed to prevent injuries to race spectators.

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Wheldon, who had been struggling to land a ride this past IndyCar season despite his string of victories, had started near the back of the pack but was rapidly working his way up through a field of 15 cars moving at speeds approaching 220 mph – fast enough that several drivers had complained of the potential risks prior to the race.

There was, “Not much room for error” on the 1.5 mile track, said driver Wade Cunningham, who was near the front of the pack when the accident occurred on Lap 11.

“It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible,” said Danica Patrick, who was in her last race in the IndyCar series.

“The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from Terminator or something,” added driver Ryan Briscoe.  “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.”

The damage was severe enough that crews had to later make extensive repairs to the fences and railings at the speeday, as well as to the tarmac itself.

A number of drivers were injured in the carnage, though to the surprise of some watching, the 33-year-old Wheldon was the only fatality.  His car drove over another driven by Paul Tracy, spun and slammed into the catch fence.

Wheldon, who came to the U.S. in 1999, was the IndyCar champion in 2005 and had 16 wins in the series during his career.  He was chasing a $5 million purse offered by the race promoter to any independent who could win the Las Vegas event – which had been highly promoted in an effort to boost sagging IndyCar TV ratings.

The death of Wheldon was the first IndyCar fatality since Paul Dana was killed during a warm-up session at Florida’s Homestead race track in 2006. Ironically, Wheldon won that race later in the day.

The Brit had clear intentions of making an early run for the leadership at Las Vegas, according to a blog he had posted on USA Today.

“This is going to be an amazing show,” Wheldon wrote, promising it would be “pure entertainment.”

His sudden death drew an immediate outpouring.  Erik Berkman, president of Honda Motor Sports, which had long ties to Wheldon, issued a statement saying, “For everyone in the Honda family, this is a day of tragedy and incalcuable loss. For us, Dan was more than a driver, he was a member of the Honda family. But most of all, our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, wife Susie and two young sons. Dan had a passion for motorsports and a wonderful personality that made him a friend to everyone in the racing community.”

The race halted after the crash, drivers, crews and fans alike waited for word from the hospital.  The news of Wheldon’s death triggered an outpouring of grief, tears flowing down the face of Dario Franchitti, who was handed a box of tissues before climbing back into his car for a five-lap tribute – bagpipes playing Amazing Grace, with Wheldon’s #77 the only car listed on the scoreboard.

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