He wanted one more chance, one more shot to drive full time in the IndyCar Series and win another title. Dan Wheldon had taken the checkered flag at the Indy 500 in May for the second time in seven years, but that had been a one-race deal; until last weekend he had competed in only one other event since that special afternoon at the Brickyard.
Then Randy Bernard, the CEO of IndyCar, offered the 2005 series champ what seemed like a dream opportunity: If he would start in the back of the field at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the season finale on Oct. 16 and win the race, Bernard would give him $2.5 million and another $2.5 million to a fan chosen at random. It was a marketing gimmick for a series struggling with eroding attendance and flagging TV ratings, but Wheldon accepted. Then on Sunday morning, just hours before he would begin his charge on the 1.5-mile oval, Wheldon received what he had really wanted at Vegas: a contract offer from Andretti Autosport to take the seat in 2012 of NASCAR-bound Danica Patrick, which the 33-year-old promptly signed.
As he stood on pit road before the race, his future no longer in doubt, Wheldon was a contented man. But he knew that the task immediately before him was potentially dangerous. The high speeds at Vegas (the cars went nearly 225 mph in practice) mixed with a larger-than-normal field (34 drivers, several with little experience on ovals) had many in the garage worried about the potential for a big multicar crash. "It's going to be a pack race and you never know how that's going to turn out," Wheldon wrote in a blog for USA Today last Saturday.
Just minutes into the race, on Lap 11, two cars in the middle of the field touched while exiting Turn 2. In a heartbeat several more cars slammed into each other. Wheldon, who had already advanced 10 positions, from last place to 24th, had no time to brake or turn. At about 220 mph, Wheldon ran over the right rear wheel of Paul Tracy and was launched into the air. The cockpit of his car hit the catch fence above the SAFER barrier and then, as the car caught on fire and began to disintegrate, slid a few hundred yards down the track. Fifteen cars were involved in the wreck, and four went airborne. As safety officials reached Wheldon's car, they frantically waved for more help and quickly put a yellow tarp over the cockpit to prevent fans from looking inside. He was airlifted to University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead—IndyCar's first fatality since 2006, when Paul Dana was killed in a practice session at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"One minute you're joking around at driver intros—the next, Dan's gone," said driver Dario Franchitti. "I'm trying to hold it together."
One of the most popular drivers in IndyCar, Wheldon, a native of Emberton, England, relished his time away from racing this season. He spent most weekdays at his home in St. Petersburg with his wife, Susie; their two-year-old son, Sebastian; and their seven-month-old, Oliver. During his hiatus, Wheldon served as a color commentator for three IndyCar events on Versus, where his quick wit and charming smile led many to tell Wheldon that his future in television was bright. But he still longed to race, and he helped IndyCar test the new car design that it will unveil next season. He joked that he was the "test dummy" for the cars.
In 134 starts in the series, Wheldon won 16 races. On Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, more than two hours after the horror unfolded on the track, his car number, 77, was the only one listed on the speedway's scoring pylon. After Bernard announced that Wheldon had passed away and that the race would not resume—giving Franchitti, who came to Vegas as the points leader, his third straight series title—the drivers decided on running five low-speed tribute laps. Sobbing, Franchitti climbed into his car as his wife, actress Ashley Judd, stood nearby, tears in her eyes as well. The laps were completed, the engines were turned off, and then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the desert, the IndyCar season came to a sad, silent end.
NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES
HEART OF A CHAMPION Wheldon didn't have a full-time ride at Indianapolis in May, when he won the sport's iconic race for the second time.