Yesterday was supposed to be a day of lasts for the IndyCar Series. It was the last race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was Danica Patrick’s last race in the league before switching over to fulltime Nascar Nationwide Cup duties next season.
But nobody expected it to be the last day of Dan Wheldon’s life as he vied for a first-place finish amid only having two starts in a hectic 2011 season. Tragically, however, the two-time Indy 500 champion died Sunday afternoon from unrecoverable injuries sustained in a 15-car pileup on lap 11 of the 300-mile race. He was 33 years old.
Despite his past successes, including two victories at the Indy 500 and 16 total wins, Wheldon came to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway as an infrequent series driver, as he was unable to secure a full-time ride this season. Race organizers offered a $5 million purse to infrequent drivers, allowing Wheldon a shot of a big payday if he were to win the last race of the season.
Starting at the back of the 34-car field, he had jumped nine positions by the time the accident began on the 11th lap. With the catalyst to Wheldon’s fatal accident starting just in front of him on the 1.5-mile oval track, Wheldon was not able to slow down or change directions quickly enough as speeds on the stretch reached more than 220 mph.
After being airlifted to a local hospital, the British-born racer succumbed to injury, leading organizers to cancel the rest of the race and instead bring out a five-lap tribute in Wheldon’s honor.
In recent years, Wheldon had been a force in the IndyCar series, winning the flagship race in 2005 and again this year after beating fellow driver J.R. Hildebrand on the last turn. This year’s race served as in a soap opera-like justice, as Hildebrand had taken the spot once held by Wheldon on the Panther Racing team for 2011.
But Wheldon kept busy when he was not driving, taking on a role as a tester of the next-generation IndyCar set to debut in 2012. The future car would ironically enough use increased safety as the focal point of its design.
Having offers in-hand to race in Formula One and Nascar in recent years, Wheldon stuck to the racing series he had joined in 2002 and concentrated on spending time with his family this year. It was announced yesterday that team owner Michael Andretti had just signed a contract with Wheldon for a fulltime spot in the 2012 season.
Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and their two young sons.
Second photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series.