Photo Credit: WISH-TV
Five years ago today, on Sunday, October 16th, 2011, an IndyCar championship was set to be won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada, by either championship leader and 3-time series champion Dario Franchitti or rising star Will Power.
Just over four and a half months after winning the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May in epic fashion, when he passed rookie JR Hildebrand on the final straightaway after Hildebrand crash in the final turn, Dan Wheldon was set to start from the back of the field at Las Vegas in 34th. If he was able to win the race, he would win $5 million, of which $2.5 million would be split with a lucky fan. Wheldon had had recent experience in coming through the field having started in 28th place two weeks before at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky, and finished in 14th place.
Drivers had expressed safety concerns all weekend long about the excessive speeds around the short 1.5-mile 20-degree banked D-shaped oval, where average lap speeds nearly matched those turned at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana, the fastest track on the series’ schedule.
“I spent time with Dan in his motor home prior to the race,” said former IndyCar driver Adrian Fernandez on Monday, October 17th, 2011. “And with many of the other drivers during the pre-race ceremonies, you could feel the fear.”
The race, which was scheduled to last for 200 laps, took place anyway despite many drivers speaking out against the racing condition. Once it got underway, the race showed why the drivers had had such concerns early on with the high-speed action and extremely close racing on such a short, high-banked track.
The race was one big pack race. The entire field of 34 cars, which is more than the amount of cars that run at Indianapolis for the Indianapolis 500 each year, was separated by less than four seconds, with cars running side by side and wheel to wheel on the high-banked turns, traveling at speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour.
On lap 10 of the race, the ABC broadcasters shifted the camera to the on-board camera on Dan Wheldon’s car, noting that he had already advanced 10 spots in as many laps, going from 34th to 24th place. As he completed lap 10 and made his way into the first corner of the track, we could see smoke from cars up ahead, and Wheldon’s car rapidly approached the apparent contact.
Then, the camera switched to the normal view, and we could see that this was no ordinary crash. Cars were driving over top of other cars, spinning up the track, smashing into other cars, catching on fire, flying through the air, and flying into the catch fence. It was like nothing anyone in IndyCar had ever witnessed. When it was all said and done, 15 of the 34 cars in the field were collected in the massive pileup. There were fires in a bunch of cars, and there were even car parts spit across the track, some of which just sitting and burning.
The race was red flagged after 12 laps had been completed, particularly due to the fact that the crash was so hard for the 19 cars that had not been involved in the crash to drive through all of the debris. They managed to do so on lap 12, but the red flag was flown soon after because of the challenge all of the carnage presented.
The crash started as drivers tried to avoid light contact between rookies Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe, who were running towards the middle of the field. This causes a chain reaction of drivers losing control of their cars, and that is when all hell broke loose.
Dan Wheldon was one of the 15 drivers involved in the crash. In his case, his car got airborne when he drove over the top of Charlie Kimball’s car and flew through the air still traveling at a speed of over 160 miles per hour. His car went cockpit-first into the catch fence, where it erupted into flames and was sent spinning down the track. The roll bar, which is meant to protect the driver’s head in the rare case that the car were to go upside down was completed ripped off of the car.
Wheldon was extracted from the car and airlifted to a nearby hospital. After a while, it was noted that a couple of other drivers, particularly Pippa Mann, Will Power, and JR Hildebrand, had injuries and needed medical assistance for; however, they were all awake and alert. Wheldon was the only driver that had not been accounted for in terms of being awake and alert after the horrifying crash.
At 4:54 PM EDT (1:54 PM local time), Dan Wheldon was pronounced dead, not even one hour after the crash. The official announcement of his passing from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard came at about 6:00 PM EDT at the track itself, and IndyCar’s drivers and team owners decided that the remaining 188 laps of the race would not be run. The 19 drivers whose cars had not been damaged in the crash also agreed to do a five-lap salute to Wheldon around the speedway in the three-wide formation that is used at the start of the Indianapolis 500 each year.
It was perhaps the longest five-lap span in IndyCar history, and not just because of the extremely slow pace of the cars. The looks of shock on the faces of drivers, pit crew members, and fans showed just how unbelievable the fact that something so awful and so sad had happened in what was supposed to be one of the greatest days in the sport all year. Wheldon’s death was the first that resulted from an IndyCar crash since Paul Dana was killed in 2006 at Homestead Speedway in Miami, Florida, and it all happened so quickly, even after the safety concerns expressed prior to the race by the drivers.
It was later determined that Wheldon had died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head because of the heavy impact his head sustained when his helmet hit a pole on the catch fence. At that speed, no matter how much protection your head has, a hit like that will cause severe damage to the brain. In Wheldon’s case, it killed him.
Wheldon, who was only 33 years old at the time of his death, was in the IndyCar Series from the 2002 season through the 2011 season. He won a total of 16 races in 135 starts during that span, including the 2005 and the 2011 Indianapolis 500 mile races. He was the series champion in the 2005 season.
However, following eight consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2010 during which Wheldon had a full-time ride in the series, he could not get one in the 2011 season. He only competed in three races all season long: the Indianapolis 500, a race he won, the Kentucky Indy 300, which was practice for his back-to-front quest at Las Vegas, and the IndyCar championship race at Las Vegas, during which he sustained fatal injuries. Despite not having a full-time ride in 2011, Wheldon had a ride lined up with Andretti Autosport, the team he drove for from the 2003 season to the 2005 season, for the entire 2012 season.
Wheldon spent time in the Versus broadcast booth for the IndyCar races that were broadcast on that network since he did not have a ride that season. He also was the primary driver who tested the new IndyCar chassis that debuted in the series starting in 2012 and was eventually named the “DW12” chassis in honor of Wheldon.
Since Wheldon’s death, many safety advancements in the sport have been made, particularly to the cars themselves. The rear wheel pods and closure panels have prevented cars from getting airborne in many cases during which they otherwise would. There are still some hard, violent wrecks from time to time, like Ryan Briscoe’s crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California in 2015 and Josef Newgarden’s crash at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas this past June, but no driver has been killed as a result of how violent a crash was. Justin Wilson, the only driver to be killed as a result of an IndyCar crash since Wheldon’s death was killed as a result of a nose cone from a car that had crashed hitting his helmet at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania in 2015. Even since then, the series has made safety improvements to the cars, most notably tethering the nose cones of the cars to the cars themselves.
Everyone would like to think that there will be no more deaths in IndyCar racing, or in any sport for that matter. The 2016 season was a fantastic season during which no driver lost his or her life in an IndyCar crash, despite some pretty violent wrecks taking place. Right now, it seems as though IndyCars are as safe as they are ever going to be, but there will always be vulnerabilities in the overall safety of the sport and the sport will always be dangerous. Sometimes those improvements come as a result of something terrible happening, which is unfortunate that that is what it takes for vulnerabilities to be recognized and for improvements to be made, but that is just the nature of the sport. Wheldon’s death was an unfortunate reminder of how risky and dangerous the sport of IndyCar racing has been, is, and always will be. We can only hope that moving forward, there will be no more injuries or deaths in IndyCar racing and that the safety of the sport will continue to be improved on a regular basis without anything tragic happening to cause the improvements to need to be made.