October 16, 2011 was an ominous day for open-wheel auto racing. Earlier in the day Sebastian Vettel had punctuated his second straight F1 driver championship with his tenth victory of the season, and Mark Webber’s podium finish ensured that Red Bull would also win its second manufacturer’s title. Attention turned across the Pacific to the final day of the IZOD IndyCar Series, as Dario Franchitti and Will Power were separated by just 18 points in the race to win the season championship prior to the final race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But just a dozen laps into the race, cars started getting loose going into turn 2. First one group, and then another, started sliding around and bursting into flames. Fifteen cars total would be destroyed, and the red flag soon came out as the race was neutralized by IndyCar. One car would get airborne, flying across the bow of several others, working its way up the track into the wall before tumbling and shearing and leaving its nuts and bolts across the oval.
Inside, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 series champion Dan Wheldon was bounced and jostled. The 33-year-old Englishman, who despite winning this year’s race at Indy was without a ride during the 2011 season, was making a special appearance in just his third race of the season in Sin City and hoping to collect a $5 million league bonus for part-time drivers in the season finale. Airlifted to University Hospital at UNLV, doctors frantically worked on Wheldon’s massive list of injuries.
But there was simply nothing that the medical crew could do for the Englishman. Soon after the announcement of Wheldon’s passing had made its way around the garage, where tears were flowing freely among both teammates and longtime rivals, a statement was released. “IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard told reporters in the only official comments yet released. “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 to in his honor.”
Before the race had even started, there had been fears that something detrimental might happen on the 1.5-mile oval. The tight confines of the track, coupled with cars that had been hitting speeds over 225 miles per hour in practice and qualifying sessions, left many fearing an incident of this nature. But just as in the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at Whistler Sliding Centre prior to the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics, retrospect grants the survivors the ability to wonder what if anything might have been done to better prevent the fatality of an athlete.
Wheldon, who was expected to take over Danica Patrick’s GoDaddy ride with Andretti Autosport next season after her offseason transfer to NASCAR, leaves a legacy as a one of the most talented drivers of his generation. Moving from England as a 21-year-old following a promising junior career (where his biggest rival was 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button), Wheldon spent several years in open-wheel racing’s minor leagues before getting a full-time ride in 2003 with Andretti Green Racing.
From 2004 to 2006, few drivers were more successful on the track than Wheldon. In 2004 he finished second behind Tony Kanaan, winning the first three races of his IndyCar career among eleven podium finishes. In 2005 he would put it all together, finishing 80 points ahead of Kanaan despite one fewer victory and two fewer podiums. In 2006 he finished tied with Sam Hornish, Jr. with 475 points; only the fact that he had two fewer victories than Hornish relegated Wheldon to the runner-up position in a tiebreaker.
Ultimately, contract disputes and flagging form would see him shut out of a full-time ride in 2011 after his spot at Panther Racing was turned over to 2010 Indy Lights champion J.R. Hillebrand. Signing a one-race contract with Bryan Herta Autosport to race his ninth Indy 500. A late mistake by Hillebrand would allow Wheldon, perfectly positioned, to sneak past in the final stretch and win ahead of the youngster who replaced him.
It will be the final defining moment of an enigmatic career. Wheldon would spend his last few months testing the 2012 chassis for IndyCar, and preparing for this last doomed chance at returning to winning form. Instead we are left to weep and wonder what might have been. Succeeded by his wife, Susie, and their two young sons Sebastian and Oliver, Wheldon’s place in the pantheon of greats is secure yet severed in a sad and premature end.