The Tragic Death of Dan Wheldon Came in 1 of the Worst IndyCar Wrecks Ever

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Dan Wheldon, Indianapolis 500

At 220 miles per hour, a race car travels the length of a football field every second of every minute. It leaves precious little time for a driver to maneuver out of harm’s way when there’s an incident ahead, and it’s why multi-time champion Dan Wheldon lost his life in 2011.

Wheldon was caught up in a 15-vehicle crash that looked scary in real-time and positively horrific in slow-motion replays from cameras mounted in the cars.

Few IndyCar drivers could match Dan Wheldon’s credentials

British driver Dan Wheldon won a pair of Indianapolis 500 championships. | Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage
British driver Dan Wheldon won a pair of Indianapolis 500 championships. | Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage

British driver Dan Wheldon was one of the most accomplished figures in IndyCar racing. His resume including a pair of triumphs in the Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IndyCar series championship.

He began driving in IndyCar in 2002 at the age of 23, quickly developing a reputation for skillful driving. He was already a series runner-up by 2004 and then took the championship the following season, which also marked his first Indy 500 triumph.

Wheldon missed out on a second series crown in 2006, finishing tied in points with Sam Hornish Jr. but losing the victories tiebreaker. He slipped in the standings in subsequent years while remaining competitive, but Wheldon found himself unemployed at the start of 2011. Still, he was able to score a victory at Indy once again that season thanks to a last-minute arrangement to drive and a last-lap crash by J.R. Hildebrand.

Fans’ recollection of that victory, however, would be overwhelmed by their memories of Oct. 16, 2011, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was a day that began with Wheldon, who had 16 IndyCar victories under his belt, agreeing to take over Danica Patrick’s ride at Andretti Autosport beginning the next season and ended with his death.

One of the worst IndyCar wrecks ever

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The 200-lap IZOD IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was to be the final race of the 2011 schedule. However, it never went into the books as an official race because of an incredible wreck just a few minutes into the competition as tightly packed cars plowed into and over each other. Cunningham’s car swerved, clipping J.R. Hildebrand. Cunningham swerved and Hildebrand rolled over the rear of that car and went airborne.

Cunningham hit two more cars before he went hard into the wall, and at that point the middle and upper portions of the track were littered with debris as the drivers of damaged cars furiously tried to avoid more carnage and hoped everyone behind them could find safe passage.

Unfortunately, the next wave of drivers was upon them almost instantly, and Vitor Meira took out two more cars. Paul Tracy then ran up on Tomas Scheckter’s ride, and Pippa Mann went over the top.

Dan Wheldon never had a chance

The major wreck that ultimately involved 15 cars was not nearly over at that point.

Dan Wheldon was slowing down but was too close to avoid being involved. His No. 77 car climbed up the back of Charlie Kimball’s car, which had been hit by Meira, and went airborne high on the track. The car began rolling in mid-air and hit the catch-fence cockpit-first.

Though pronounced dead two hours later at a local hospital, Wheldon was almost certainly lifeless by the time his car fell back to the track, which at that point was littered with cars on fire or otherwise heavily damaged.

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

The aftermath: A sad tribute to Dan Wheldon

Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011. | Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011. | Robert Laberge/Getty Images

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The race was quickly red-flagged and the remaining cars sent to pit row as safety vehicle swarmed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway track. With the catch-fence severely damaged and gashes visible in the track surface, it became apparent that the race wouldn’t be completed.

After a lengthy wait, drivers and crew members were summoned to a meeting at which they were told that Dan Wheldon had died. With the season points championship having already been decided and nothing else on the line, the remainder of the race was canceled.

Nineteen drivers whose cars were still running returned to the track for a low-speed, five-lap salute to Wheldon as the scoring tower displayed only Wheldon’s No. 77 and the public-address system played ‘Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace.”