Lewis Hamilton pays tribute to 'inspirational' British racing driver killed in IndyCar pile-up who had feared race would end in tragedy

Monday, October 17, 2011

-Father-of-two, 33, pushed himself to win as the only competitor to take up the $5million challenge
-'I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,' says fellow racer Dario Franchitti
-Driver was 'frustrated' with car problems in the days before the race but promised 'pure entertainment'
-Voiced concerns about the speeds cars were reaching and crowded 1.5-mile long track
-Shocked Lewis Hamilton says Wheldon was an 'inspirational guy and talented driver'
-Former racing driver Mark Blundell brands Las Vegas track as a 'recipe for disaster'

By Daily Mail Reporter

Tragedy: Dan Wheldon's number 77 car, far left, launches into the air after clipping a vehicle that was in front of it. Moments later Mr Wheldon smashes into the fencing to his right

The fiery pile-up, on the 11th lap of the 300-mile race, was caused by contact on Turn 2 and sucked in almost half of the race’s 34 participants.

Mr Wheldon, a former private school pupil originally from Buckinghamshire, was rushed to hospital in a helicopter but died as a result of his severe 'unsurvivable' injuries.

As the racing world today came to terms with the death, leading figures from the sport paid tribute to the 'talented and inspirational driver'.

Lewis Hamilton, who was the 2008 Formula One World Champion, said: '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.

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

Jenson Button wrote on Twitter: 'Just woken up to the most horrific news. Dan Weldon RIP. I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90s, a true fighter. We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy.'

Mr Wheldon's blue and white car takes off in the air. It appears to have hit the back of the green vehicle in front, which acted like a ramp and launched the British driver upwards

Out of control: A close up of the moment of impact shows the rear left wheel of the green car pushed up by Mr Wheldon's vehicle, which reaches a steep angle

Milliseconds after the initial impact, Mr Wheldon's car has spun upside down as it hurtles towards the fencing. Will Power's car, right, is just beginning to take off

Will Power's car is flung into the air as a large number of vehicles collide in the pile-up and sparks fly. Mr Wheldon's vehicle has gone ahead of them and can no longer be seen in this shot

Will Power's number 12 car is seen flying through the air. The vehicle was not crushed against the fencing in the same manner as Mr Wheldon's and he survived the accident

Will Power's car lands close to the barrier facing backwards without suffering the severe damage inflicted on Mr Wheldon's vehicle, which is further down the track

Smashed to pieces: Wheldon's car, only identifiable by the B & W logo, is shown in the far left of the picture. The car is upside down and the driver's head has clearly been in contact with the barrier

The severe extent of the damage to the number 77 car, left, can be seen. Wires and shards of metal are hanging loose from it as flames engulf the tale

Fire: Mr Wheldon's car is momentarily lost is a ball of flames as it hits the barrier. Wheels and parts of the body of the vehicle are flung onto the track

Flames: Mr Wheldons car skids across the asphalt on its nose having lost both front wheels and the rear spoiler in the crash. Will Power's vehicle is seen behind him against the fence

'Unsurvivable injuries: Mr Wheldon's head is flung to the left as his 77 car, now without any wheels, spins away from the fence towards the centre of the track

Medics rush Mr Wheldon's damaged car as it becomes clear that he is severely injured. Some workers are seen waving, frantically trying to get more assistance

The race to save his life: Dan Wheldon is loaded into a medical helicopter and airlifted to hospital

Questions were also being asked about the safety of the course amid speculation that Mr Wheldon was pushing himself too hard after a difficult season. He had started in last position but with offer of a $5million bonus for drivers who win from the back of the gird, had already weaved his way through ten cars before going into the back of another vehicle.

Trails of sparks could be seen across the asphalt before Mr Wheldon's car was flung into the air and struck part of the 'catch fence' outside the bend.

Debris from the cars was strewn across the track as they spun into each other and careered into the fencing. Flames then engulfed Mr Wheldon's shattered vehicle which skidded on its nose across the tarmac.

Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power, were hurt in the pile-up.

Rescue workers were at Mr Wheldon's car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene. A helicopter descended onto the track moments later and airlifted Mr Wheldon's body to the University Hospital in Las Vegas.

The former champion's injuries were so bad that there was little that the medics could do to save him. He was pronounced dead a short while later and officials were informed two hours after the initial crash.

Mr Wheldon Susie, and two sons, Sebastian, two, and six-month-old Oliver, are understood to have been at his bedside when he died, as well as his two brothers and a sister. His parents are believed to have witnessed their son's tragic death while watching the race on TV.

Proud family man: Wheldon poses with wife Susie, who is holding baby son Oliver, and older son Sebastian on the day after he won Indianapolis 500 in May of this year. With them is the Borg-Warner trophy

Devastated: Team mates Jenson Button, left, and Lewis Hamilton, right, have both paid tribute to Wheldon who they have called 'inspirational'

The driver had weaved his way through ten cars to place himself in a promising position close to the middle of the field in the early stages of the race. He was in a strong position to push for a victory and as a proud family man, the $5m would have been a big help to support his wife and children who had started a new life with him in the U.S.

Organisers of the race had offered the massive bonus to any non-regular IndyCar driver, such as Wheldon, who had started at the back of the field. He was the only racer to accept the challenge.

Despite his previous success, Mr Wheldon was not a regular driver this season and accepted the offer, leading to speculation this caused him to drive faster than normal. A win would have helped to restore him to the heights of the series and helped with sponsorship. He had struggled this season with financial backing and had topped up his income with commentary work.

The race was abandoned after the tragedy and as news of Mr Wheldon's death spread there were emotional scenes track side.

Some of his colleagues and friends broke down in tears while others looked on in a stunned silence, still coming to terms with the news that the vibrant driver had gone.

IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard confirmed Mr Wheldon’s death at a press conference.

He said: ‘IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.’

Fellow driver Dario Franchitti, Wheldon’s former teammate and friend since the age of six, said: 'I’m numb and speechless. One minute you’re joking around in driver intros and the next Dan’s gone.'

Franchitti claimed there had been warning signs of potential danger due to the number of cars in close confinement at such high speeds.

He added: 'I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff.

'I love hard racing but that to me is not really what it's about. One small mistake from somebody...

'We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and it’s what we love to do. Days like today it doesn’t matter.

'I think everybody in the IndyCar series considered Dan a friend. He was one of those special, special people.

'He was six years old when I first met him. He was this little kid and the next thing you know he was my team-mate. '

Moments before the start of the race, popular Wheldon, a two-time winner of the famously tough Indy 500, sent his last Twitter message. It was just one word - 'Green!!!' - the colour on the lights that signals the start of the race.

Although officials had decided to end the race, after learning of his death, 19 of Mr Wheldon’s fellow drivers went on to perform a five-lap salute in his honour.

Many of them were visibly shaken and almost all of them covering their eyes with dark sunglasses after being told that their colleague's injuries were fatal.

When the drivers solemnly returned to the track, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard.

Franchitti sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the tribute laps.
Over speakers at the track, the song Danny Boy blared, followed by Amazing Grace as hundreds of crew workers from each team stood solemnly on the side of the course. Supporters in the stands stood up in silence for the tribute.

Television cameras captured Ashley Judd, the wife of Mr Franchitti, dabbing at her eyes shortly before the official word came.

Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it was airborne and sailed into what's called the 'catch fence,' which sits over the safety barrier that's designed to give when cars make contact.

IndyCar officials also cancelled its season-ending banquet following the death. They had planned to hold a celebration for the 2011 season tonight at Mandalay Bay Resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

Today it emerged that Mr Wheldon had become 'frustrated' before the race with technical problems in the number 77 Bowers & Wilkins Magnolia/William Rast Dallara/Honda. He complained that the vehicle was 3mp off the pace but said adjustments were being carried out.

'If we start the race that far off the pace, it's going to be difficult to keep up,' he wrote on USA Today.

It's actually been a very difficult weekend for us so far. But I've been watching these guys work their tails off trying to fix this problem, and I believe they'll turn it around before Sunday's race.

'It is incredibly frustrating, both for me and them. All the boys are working as hard as possible, but so far we haven't pinpointed what it is.

'Honestly, if I can be fast enough early in the race to be able to get up there and latch onto those two, it will be pure entertainment. It's going to be a pack race, and you never know how that's going to turn out.'

Sheer disbelief: Brazilian driver Vitor Meira at a drivers meeting after the deadly crash and, right, crew members look at the remains of one of the crashed cars

Tangled mess: Members of driver Paul Tracy's team inspect the remains of his car

Shocking aftermath: Cars are scattered on the track after a 15 car crash during the Las Vegas Indy 300

Stunned and tearful: Drivers take five tribute laps in Las Vegas on Sunday in honour of Dan Wheldon

Dazed: IndyCar racer Danica Patrick walks away from pit road after the tribute laps

Choking back tears: Stunned fans weep as drivers pay their five-lap tribute

Touching tribute: Teams line up on pit row as drivers take five laps in honour of Wheldon

IndyCar said information on a public memorial for Wheldon will be released at a later date.

Mr Wheldon is the first IndyCar driver to die on the track since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.
IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard will now face tough questions on safety as analysis begins of the fatal crash.

There were suggestions that too many cars were crammed onto the course. Thirty four were competing in all, but the oval-shaped track in Las Vegas is just 60 per cent as long as races where 33 cars are used.

Former Formula One driver Mark Blundell said after the accident that the 1.5 mile long Motor Speedway track was a 'recipe for disaster'.

Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal of McLaren, said the death highlighted 'the bitter contrast that sometimes exists between the highs and lows of motorsport.' He added: 'The motorsport world is now in mourning following Dan’s passing.'

The tragedy comes just months after Mr Wheldon won the famous Indianapolis 500 in May for the second time.

Mr Wheldon, who lived in St Petersburg, Florida, won the entire IndyCar series championship back in 2005, when he also enjoyed his first triumph in the Indy500 race.

Born in Emberton, Buckinghamshire, Mr Wheldon attended the fee-paying Bedford School and started karting at the age of four.

After an early racing rivalry with contemporary and Formula One ace Jenson Button, he left the UK in 1999 for the more lucrative racing scene in the USA.

Wheldon's first Indianapolis 500 victory was in 2005 - he passed Danica Patrick with less than 10 laps to go that year - and his win at the sport's most famed race this year was one to particularly savour.

It came in perhaps the oddest of fashions, as he was the beneficiary of a huge gaffe by someone else.

Mr Wheldon was in second place, far back of rookie J.R. Hildebrand approaching the final turn - when Hildebrand lost control and clipped the wall.

He zipped past, and the only lap he led all day at Indianapolis was the last one.

He returned to the track the next morning for the traditional photo session with the winner, kissing the bricks as his two-year-old son Sebastian sat on the asphalt alongside him, and wife, Susie, held their then two-month-old, Oliver.

Mr Wheldon was almost resigned to finishing second at Indy for the third straight year, before misfortune struck Hildebrand.

'It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis,' he said.

'That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what's going to happen.'

Such was the case again today.

Mr Wheldon was well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the fateful lap, and had no way to avoid the wrecks in front of him.

With the incredible speeds reached by the cars, there was no time to brake or steer out of trouble.

Popular: With his love of racing and golden boy looks, Wheldon was loved among followers of the sport

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