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IndyCar star Wheldon dies in crash in Las Vegas race; auto racing world mourns

The No. 77 was the lone car designation illuminated atop the infield scoring pylon.

The sound of bagpipes playing "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace" echoed plaintively through the public address system.

Fans stood in numbed silence, their heads bowed, many in tears.

Nineteen drivers — slightly more than half of the 34 who had started the race about two hours earlier — circled the 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, three abreast, in droning tribute.

What was to have been a sun-kissed afternoon of exciting open-wheel racing turned into unfathomable tragedy when two-time and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died as the result of a horrific 15-car crash only 11 laps into the IZOD IndyCar World Championships.

"IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from un­survivable injuries," Randy Bernard, IndyCar chief executive, said in the LVMS media center after informing the series’ drivers of Wheldon’s death at about 2:20 p.m.

"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."

Wheldon, 33, a native of Emberton, England, who lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., died at University Medical Center, where he was taken shortly after the fiery crash. Medical personnel at the track worked on Wheldon before he was airlifted by helicopter at 1:19 p.m.

Wheldon’s wife, Susie, and two young sons, Sebastian , 2, and Oliver, 7 months, reportedly were at the hospital at the time of his death. An autopsy is planned for today.

His death was the first racing fatality at the speedway since 1996, when an amateur sports-car driver crashed the day before the track’s inaugural Indy Racing League — now IndyCar Series — event.

The last death in IndyCar was in 2006 when rookie Paul Dana died during practice at Miami-Homestead Speedway in Florida, another oval track.

Bernard, after meeting with the remaining drivers, announced the race would not be resumed and ruled it "incomplete." Dario Franchitti, who led Will Power by 18 points heading into the season-ending, 200-lap race, was declared series champion.

Power was one of 15 drivers involved in the crash, and he was driven to UMC shortly afterward complaining of lower-back pain. He was evaluated and released.

Two other racers, J.R. Hildebrand and Pippa Mann, also were driven to the hospital for evaluation.

IndyCar said Mann was treated for a burn to her right pinkie finger and will be released this morning, while Hilde­brand was awake and alert but being held overnight for further evaluation.

Franchitti, his actress wife Ashley Judd and team owner Chip Ganassi visited the media center after the on-track memorial to Wheldon, who was racing Sunday as part of an IndyCar promotion that would have paid him and a fan a combined $5 million had he gone from the 34th starting position to winning.

Franchitti sobbed; Ganassi’s eyes were reddened as they spoke.

"You know, one minute you’re joking around during driver (introductions), and the next Dan’s gone," said Franchitti, who was a teammate with Wheldon at Andretti Green Racing from 2003 to 2005.

Winning the series championship, his fifth, was the furthest thing from Franchitti’s mind.

"Honestly, I was driving around there on the parade lap we did … I was thinking about Dan, actually. I was thinking of all of Dan’s stories," he said.

"In situations like this, I think obviously (of) the sadness, I was thinking of some of the fun times we had. But really right now it’s just sad. It’s just really, really sad. It’s the ugly, ugly side of our sport. You see it all."

The crash started when Wade Cunning­ham’s car swerved in Turn 2 and Hilde­brand inadvertently drove his car over the rear of Cunningham’s. That sent Hilde­brand’s car airborne, before it darted to the right and into the guardwall.

The suddenness of the contact created a chain reaction with 13 other cars — all racing at about 220 mph — caught up in the wreck. A few spun in front of Wheldon and his car was launched into the safety catch fence mounted atop the outside guardwall.

Several cars caught on fire in the knot of collisions and the track was littered with debris, some of which was burning.

"It was like a movie scene (that) they try to make as gnarly as possible," Danica Patrick said during an interview on the ABC Sports telecast, before the news came of Wheldon’s death.

"There was debris everywhere across the whole track, you could smell the smoke, you could see the billowing smoke on the back, straight from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered."

Patrick was among several drivers who forecast the potential for devastating crashes because of speeds at 220 mph on the wide, high-banked oval.

"It’s friggin’ fast out there," Patrick said Thursday after posting the fastest practice lap of 224 mph.

Oriol Servia, who was nearly as fast as Patrick on Thursday, qualified second at 222.061 mph the next day.

"I expect it to be really hairy and dangerous," he said of Sunday’s race.

Sadly, he was right.

Wheldon ironically on Sunday morning had signed a contract to drive next year for Andretti AutoSport in the car that Patrick was driving at the time of the crash. Patrick was participating in her final IndyCar race; she will race full time in NASCAR next season.

Wheldon won 15 IndyCar races from 2003 to 2010 — including the 2005 Indy 500 en route to the series title — but didn’t have a sponsor beginning this season or a team for which to drive.

But he caught a break for this year’s Indy 500 when owner Bryan Herta asked him to drive for him.

Wheldon was running second on the last lap of that race, trailing Hildebrand, who had a commanding lead coming out of the final turn. But when Hildebrand spun, Wheldon zipped past for the win.

His victory in May was a feel-good story, and it appeared it was going to carry over to Sunday.

Wheldon was only racing because of the Indy 500 win and a special IndyCar promotion that originally offered a $5 million bonus to any non-IndyCar driver who could qualify for and then win the race. The series’ hope was to lure some NASCAR stars, but logistics couldn’t be worked out by IndyCar and it then changed the promotion to give only Wheldon the chance, with the money to be split between him and his team, and a selected fan.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports was picked by IndyCar to be the team for which Wheldon would drive.

"Dan Wheldon was a tremendous competitor, a great racer and an even better person," Sam Schmidt said in a prepared statement. "All of us at Sam Schmidt Motorsports are deeply saddened by his passing. … Our prayers go out to all of his family, especially his wife, Susie, and their two children."

Schmidt, who lives in Henderson and was left a quadriplegic by a racing accident in 2000, went to UMC and was there when Wheldon died. Schmidt could not be reached for further comment.

The crowd for the race was estimated to be about 50,000. Track president Chris Powell said in a release that attendees can receive a full refund by sending their scanned tickets to the speedway’s office.

Powell said that despite the tragedy, he expects the series to return as scheduled next year.

"We have a good relationship with Randy (Bernard) and IndyCar," Powell said, "but it’s really too soon to think about anything other than Dan’s family and friends."

Reporter Antonio Planas contributed to this report. Jeff Wolf is a freelance reporter. He can be reached at 702-406-8165 or nitrorodeo@gmail.com.

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