Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011
photo: Anne Proffit
Dan Wheldon, this year's Indianapolis 500 winner, has died in a horrendous accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that involved 15 flying and crashing cars and fire.
Wheldon was consigned to start the 200-lap IndyCar World Championship from the rear of the field in order to try and win a $5 million prize split between himself and a fan. He knew he had his work cut out for him.
Factor in a field of 34 drivers--one more than the Indy 500--on a mile-smaller track than that one on which he won less than five months ago, and everyone knew it was a recipe for danger.
That danger came on the 11th lap as cars ran three and four wide, something everyone expected.
This result, no one expected.
Born in 1978, Wheldon came to the United States and dominated the 1999 US F2000 championship, finished second a year later in Toyota Atlantic, second in the 2001 Indy Lights championship and joined the IndyCar Series in 2002 with Panther Racing.
Wheldon moved to Andretti Green Racing in 2003, where he won the Bombardier Rookie of the Year title. He was second to teammate Tony Kanaan in 2004 and won both the Indianapolis 500 and the INDYCAR series title in 2005.
Moving to Chip Ganassi Racing the following year, Wheldon never had the success he had with Andretti Green (even as he earned top-five season-long results) and returned to Panther in 2009-10.
Chip Ganassi said Wheldon "had an infectious way about himself and I understood why he won all those races. Ask Scott (Dixon) what Dan brought to our team--he made Scott a better driver."
With only a single race in 2011 on his calendar, driving for regular Firestone Indy Lights series team Bryan Herta Autosport, Wheldon made the best of it and won the centennial Indy 500. He and BHA were named by INDYCAR as the series' test team. Named as the sole eligible driver for the $5 million prize at the finale, Wheldon was permitted to race at Kentucky to prepare for this day.
The accident that claimed his life was one of the worst this writer has ever seen in covering races for more than 35 years. Cars flew atop one another and seemed to crash indiscriminately. That Wheldon received injuries from which he could not recover was inevitable.
Dan Wheldon is survived by his wife Susie and sons Sebastian and Oliver. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.
The IZOD IndyCar Series did not complete its scheduled race and instead, in honor of Dan Wheldon, the remaining drivers drove five slow laps accompanied by bagpipes playing "Danny Boy" as every member of the INDYCAR community stood on pit road and every fan applauded each lap.
"Thanks to the fans for their respect," said Dario Franchitti. "This is what we love to do and this is what we live for."
"Today we lost a good friend."
© 2011 Anne Proffit