That morning, Dan Wheldon signed a contract to return to full time racing in the Izod IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport in 2012 and then set about the business at hand, trying to win the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It ended sadly and savagely. As we all know, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner died in a horrific, 15-car crash.
The loss of Wheldon is a devastating blow to an IndyCar series still trying to rebuild its fan base and television ratings since the IRL/CART split of the mid-1990s. The 33-year-old Wheldon, the 2005 series champion with 16 IndyCar wins (including Indy this year), was one of IndyCars best known and popular drivers.
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Wheldon's star value had diminished a bit in recent years. Driving for Panther Racing, he didn't win a race in 2009 and 2010 and found himself unemployed at the start of 2011. Wheldon's career appeared to be taking the path of Buddy Rice, the Indy 500 winner and 3rd-place finisher in the points in 2004 who did not make an IndyCar start in 2009 or 2010.
The 100-year anniversary Indy 500 marked Wheldon's renaissance. He signed with the Bryan Herta Autosport/Curb Agajanian team, which formed an engineer alliance with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The Herta team, which runs full-time in Firestone Indy Lights, had only one previous IndyCar start: the 2010 Indy 500.
Wheldon's last lap pass of J.R. Hildebrand at Indy was perhaps the greatest sports moment of the year, and it restored his elite status. After finishing 14th at Kentucky. Las Vegas was to be his third race of the season.
The defection of Danica Patrick to NASCAR next season hurts IndyCar; she can't be replaced because she's the only series driver who's well known in mainstream American media and society. Andretti's decision to replace her with Wheldon clearly would have softened the blow of her departure. He, along with two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves, would have been the three most recognizable drivers in IndyCar next season. Wheldon was well-liked by the Indy establishment and recently participated in a story about the Mazda Road to Indy in which he explained what it's like to drive the cars from the Mazda Star Series up through Indy Lights as the ladder system leading to IndyCar. The story appears in the December issue of Road & Track.
Wheldon's death is a tragedy to his family and those who knew him personally, but on a national level it doesn't carry quite the impact of the passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Earnhardt, a 7-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion with legendary popularity, became even more adored following his death. It's possible that Wheldon will, too, but on much smaller scale.
Wheldon is the first Indy 500 winner to die in a racing incident since Mark Donohue, the 1972 Indy 500 champion who died in a crash while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix F1 race.
Wheldon was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time in Las Vegas—right behind a massive crash unfolding before him. The IndyCar drivers had been concerned with two issues prior to the race: the incredibly high speeds created by the smooth 1.5-mile track with 20-degree banking in the turns, and the large 34-car field. In fact, it was the largest in IndyCar history with the exception of some Indy 500s.
"We all had a feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat," IndyCar driver Oriol Servia said. "If you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do."
Wheldon started 34th, last in the field by design. He could split a $5 million bonus with a fan by going from last place to winning the race in a promotion cooked up by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard to heighten attention to the series.
Ten laps into the race, Wheldon was 24th. Tony Kanaan—who had averaged 222.78 mph for two laps running alone on the track to win the pole—and the other leaders had stretched out single file. Not too far behind there was a pack running two and three wide, lapping in the 220-mph range.
"Coming out of Turn Four," driver James Hinchcliffe explained, "Graham (Rahal) and (Ryan) Hunter-Reay were banging wheels and Helio (Castroneves) and I had to lift. That allowed Wade (Cunningham) to get a run on us and we went three-wide into Turn 1. Wade got into my right rear (tire) with his front wing and that's what made his car loose and he spun out in front everybody."
The cars directly behind had time to check up, but those farther back suddenly were coming up on slowing cars without time to slow down. J.R. Hildebrand ran over a car and was launched into the outside wall of Turn 2. With the sight of fire coming from Hildebrand's , cars began diving for the inside. Will Power ran over one of Alex Lloyd's rear wheels, becoming the second driver to fly into the outside wall.
Wheldon and Paul Tracy also darted inside, with Tracy's Dallara slightly in front. "Dan's car climbed over my back wheels," Tracy explained.
Wheldon's Dallara took off in a near-vertical climb, going over Tracy and E.J. Viso. The car barrel rolled in the air and turned, hitting the catch fence above the SAFER barrier with tremendous force. The roll hoop was sheared off. Wheldon was unprotected when he came down off the wall, turned over and, with the engine area on fire, slid down the banking to a stop on the apron.
Wheldon was taken to the infield care center, then airlifted to a hospital where he was pronounced dead soon after his arrival. IndyCar boss Bernard said Wheldon had suffered an "unsurvivable head injury."
The race was not restarted.
Nobody blamed Cunningham for starting the devastation. With 34 cars on a smooth and steeply banked 1.5-mile track with plenty of grip, the drivers knew they were going to run closely together at high speed. "It's something, unfortunately, we all thought might happen," Lloyd said. "We practiced with five cars in a group, now we had 34. There was going to be some trouble."
Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Franchitti and Scott Dixon also could see a race fraught with danger.
"It was just a chain reaction and everybody slowed down, got bunched up again and there were more crashes that started behind it," Dixon said. "It's unfortunate because everybody knew it was going to happen. You could see from lap two people were driving nuts. It doesn't matter with stock cars, but you can't touch with these [open-wheel] cars. I was in the middle of that one and it was pure luck that I wasn't in it."
Franchitti was directly behind Dixon when the crash began and he made it safely through, too.
"Within five laps, people were doing crazy stuff," Franchitti said. "I knew having driven a stock car here this wasn't a track suitable for us and we've seen it today. You can't get away from anybody. There's no way to differentiate yourself as a car or driver. People get frustrated and go four-wide and you saw what happened.
"We lost a good friend. Everybody in the IndyCar Series considered Dan a friend. He was one of those special, special people from the first moment he showed up. And he was kind of brash, but he was a charmer."
Wheldon leaves a brilliant legacy from a career that was cut off prematurely.
"He knew the risks," Michael Andretti said. "We all know the risks when we get in the car. It's a terrible thing, but unfortunately in our sport we've had a lot of days like these. They suck, but that's the way it is."
But was it the way it had to be? Did IndyCar make a mistake racing at Las Vegas with 34 cars on the track?