Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive 15-car accident on lap 13 of IndyCar’s season-closing race, held on the high-banked Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16.
Wheldon had started at the back of the 34-car grid and had passed nine or 10 cars to be running in the thick of the tightly-packed field. In only his third start this season, the Briton was trying to work his way to the front to win a $5 million (£3.2m) prize offered by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. Today’s restrictor plate-like Indycars with reduced horsepower and plenty of downforce are able to run flat out around a banked 1.5-mile oval such as Las Vegas. ‘Pack racing’, the drivers call it, and everyone always worries at these tracks about big crashes with multiple cars involved. Sure enough, running pedal to the metal at 220mph, three and sometimes four-wide, the inevitable ‘Big One’ happened in horrifying circumstances.
“I saw some cars touch in front of me and I tried to slow down and couldn’t,” said Canadian driver Paul Tracy. “And then from what I saw on the video Dan’s car came over my back wheel and over the top of me. It was a horrendous accident.”
Wheldon’s car flew into the air and crashed upside-down into the wall amid the chaos, catching fire in the process. There was damage to the track and barriers, and the race was red-flagged and then abandoned. Title contender Will Power had been taken out in the carnage, leaving Dario Franchitti uncontested as champion for the third year in a row.
The wreckage of Wheldon’s car was loaded onto a truck, covered by a tarpaulin and taken away. Wheldon had been treated at the scene and then flown to a local hospital, but an hour or so later it was confirmed that he had died in the crash.
Four-time champion Franchitti has long been a critic of racing contemporary Indycars on 1.5-mile high-banked ovals such as Las Vegas, and like most drivers he was not surprised by what happened. “Within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,” said the Scot. “That early in the race I wanted no part of that.
“I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it’s about. We said before we tested here that this is not a suitable track [for Indycars] and we’ve seen it today. You can’t get away from anybody. There’s no way to differentiate yourself. You’re stuck there and people get frustrated and go four-wide, and you saw what happened. One small mistake from somebody and there’s a massive crash.”
Former Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever, who now works as a commentator for ABC television, said: “There’s just too many cars on too easy a track to drive on.”
And veteran team boss Roger Penske added: “It’s unfortunate that early on in the race they’ve got to be racing so close that we have what they call the ‘Big One’. You always worry about those on these mile and a half tracks at these speeds and with this many cars.”
Will IndyCar continue to race on tracks like Las Vegas, or alter its formula to eliminate ‘pack racing’? Dan Wheldon’s death was a heavy price to pay for such hard lessons.