To casual sports fans, collisions are what drive popularity. Big hits in football, bench clearing brawls in baseball, knockout punches in boxing or mixed martial arts and spectacular crashes in IndyCar and NASCAR. And, while nearly all sports could be deemed “collision” sports, auto racing stands above the rest. Traveling at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour and beyond, the tiniest bump can spell doom for drivers.
On Sunday afternoon, on lap 11 of the final IndyCar Series race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a horrific 15-car crash claimed the life of 33-year-old Englishman Dan Wheldon. Considered one of the most popular drivers on the IndyCar Circuit, Wheldon was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, first winning the sport’s biggest race in 2005 and most recently taking home the crown earlier this year.
“IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy 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 in his honor.”
Counting the 2011 Indy 500, Wheldon was racing in just his third IndyCar race of the season a hoped to claim a $5 million bonus that was part of a league promotion for drivers who didn’t compete full-time in the series this year. He was the only driver to accept the challenge, although NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne admitted he too almost pursued the $5 million reward before team owner Rick Hendrick told him not to.
Prior to Sunday’s race on an oval track, multiple drivers had expressed concern about the speed of the track – speeds of nearly 225 miles per hour were reached during practice rounds. Nevertheless the race commenced and shortly thereafter it ended in the worst way possible.
The race was only minutes old when Wheldon, who started at the back of the 34-car field and was in position for a $5 million payday if he had won, couldn’t steer clear of a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.
Within seconds, several cars burst into flames and debris covered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway. Some points of impact were so devastating workers had to patch holes in the asphalt.
Video replays showed Wheldon’s car turning over as it went airborne and sailed into what’s called the catch fence, which sits over a barrier that’s designed to give a bit when cars make contact. Rescue workers were at Wheldon’s car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.
Ryan Briscoe, also racing Sunday, described the scene following the crash as looking “like like a war scene from Terminator or something. 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.”
Many drivers, crew-members and fans were visibly upset following the crash while everybody waited for word on Wheldon’s condition and that of the other drivers injured in the crash. Thankfully JR Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and Will Power, who were all also injured, are going to make a full recovery. It remains to be seen whether the IndyCar Series can do the same.
Wheldon’s death is the fourth IndyCar fatality since the Series began in 1996, the most recent occurring in 2006 when rookie Paul Dana was killed from a crash during a practice run. This fatal crash will send shock waves through the racing circuit as it is the most high-profile racing fatality since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001 on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Following Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR overhauled the safety precautions to improve the sport. Among the changes were improvements to seatbelts, as Earnhardt’s had reportedly failed and had a tear in it prior to the crash, and the mandatory usage of a HANS device, which is a Head and Neck Support system.
On Monday, in the wake of Wheldon’s death, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson publicly says IndyCar should quit racing on ovals saying he believes the IndyCar cars are built for street circuits and road courses, and drive too fast to race on ovals. He says the car is not built to withstand the bumping that occurs on ovals.
“I wouldn’t run them on ovals. There’s just no need to,” Johnson said Monday during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow.”
What’s especially tragic about Wheldon’s death is that over the course of the year he had gone from an unemployed driver at the beginning of the season, but parlayed a one-off drive in the Indianapolis 500 into his second Indy win and the richest payday of his racing career.
With IndyCar racer Danica Patrick moving to NASCAR full-time next year, Wheldon was expected to replace Danica Patrick next season in the Go-Daddy-sponsored car. Andretti Autosport, the team with which Wheldon won the 2005 Indy 500, had agreed to a contract early Sunday for Wheldon to replace Patrick next season. The deal was supposed to be signed after the race.
Patrick used Twitter to express her condolences, “There are no words for today. Myself and so many others are devastated. I pray for suzi (Wheldon’s wife) and the kids that god will give them strength.”
Wheldon leaves behind a wife, Suzie, and two sons, 2-year-old Sebastian and 6-month-old Oliver.
Photos courtesy Jim Greenhill and Daryl Moran via Wikimedia Commons.