Tragedy as Wheldon is killed in horror smash

HORRIFIC: Dan Wheldon (No 77) is thrown across the Las Vegas circuit.
HORRIFIC: Dan Wheldon (No 77) is thrown across the Las Vegas circuit.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 champion Dan Wheldon has died after a huge crash in the Indycar series finale in Las Vegas on Sunday.

The 33-year-old from Emberton was involved in a 15-car smash at the beginning of the Indy 300 which stopped the race after just 13 laps.

The 2005 champion’s car became airbourne after colliding with another, hitting the catch-fenching cockpit first before sliding down the banking on fire.

He was transported from the circuit to the University Medical Centre by air ambulance where he was joined by his wife Susie, young sons Sebastian and Oliver, and his brothers. He died of his injuries shortly later.

Long-time friend and fellow racer Dario Franchitti led the tributes from the Indycar drivers. As a result of the accidents and race cancellation, Franchitti sealed his third Indycar championship. The pair met when they were six-years-old.

“One minute you’re joking around at driver intros. The next, Dan’s gone,” he said. “I lost, we lost, a good friend.

“Everybody in the IndyCar series considered him a friend. He was such a good guy. He was a charmer.”

McLaren driver Jenson Button raced with Wheldon in the 1990s and said he was devastated by the news.

He said: “I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90’s, a true fighter. We’ve lost a legend in our sport, but also a great guy.

“I can’t begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time.”

Button’s McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton also paid tribute to Wheldon, saying: “This is an extremely sad day. Dan was a racer I’d followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motorsport ladder in the UK.

“He was an extremely talented driver. As a British guy, who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration.”

President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club Derek Warwick, said: “The BRDC is extremely proud of Dan and all that he achieved and was achieving in the United States.

“He was undoubtedly one of the great talents of his generation as his racing results testified.

“Two victories in the Indy 500 put him in a very select group of drivers.

“This is a tragic loss at such a young age. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.”

Wheldon was taking part in only his third Indycar race of the season having lost his full-time seat at the end of 2010, but made a spectacular comeback to racing by winning the Indy 500 – the most prestigious race in the world – for a second time earlier this year.

He was challenged to take part in the Las Vegas race by Indycar organisers, who offered a $5 million prize to anyone without a regular contract who could win the race starting from the back of the grid – a challenge Wheldon eagerly took up.

Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 in June when JR Hildebrand crashed at the final turn while leading, handing the victory to Wheldon, who was racing as a wildcard entrant.

After news of his death was confirmed on Sunday, the Indycar drivers took part in a five-lap salute to their colleague, with many drivers unable to contain their tears as they returned to the pitlane.

Wheldon becomes the first driver to die in the Indycar series since Paul Dana was killed at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

>> For more on Dan Wheldon’s career, read Thursday’s MK Citizen