On this day in 2011, 33-year-old Dan Wheldon, a popular, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, dies following a fiery, 15-car crash during the IndyCar World Championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. Wheldon’s death marked the first on-track IndyCar fatality since 2006, when 30-year-old driver Paul Dana perished in a crash during a practice session at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. Wheldon went on to victory in that day’s race.
Born on June 22, 1978, Wheldon was raised in Emberton, England, and was a champion kart racer. In the late 1990s, he moved to America to continue his auto-racing career. After competing in several lesser-known open-wheel series, he advanced to the IndyCar series, where he was named the 2003 rookie of the year. He won his first IndyCar event in 2004 at Japan’s Twin Ring Montegi.
In 2005, Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500, the first Englishman to do so since Grant Hill in 1966. With six first-place finishes in 2005, he shattered the record for most wins in a single IndyCar season and claimed that year’s series championship. Wheldon prevailed at the Indy 500 again on May 29, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the famous race. Despite this victory, he lacked the sponsorship to drive full-time during the 2011 season, and the October 16, 2011, event in Las Vegas marked just his third race of the year. Wheldon agreed to participate in a league promotion for part-time drivers in which he would start the 200-lap event at the back of the pack of 34 cars and split a $5 million bonus with a fan if he won the race.
Wheldon’s fatal crash occurred early in the race, on the 11th lap, with cars on the 1.5-mile oval track traveling at speeds of more than 200 mph. After a multi-vehicle crash suddenly occurred ahead of Wheldon, his car hit another car, went flying through the air and slammed into a fence. He was airlifted to a hospital and his death was announced a short time later. Several other drivers were injured in the pileup, although none critically. Experts labeled it one of the worst crashes in IndyCar history, and questions were raised about whether the track was large enough for the number of cars involved and whether it was too fast for them.
The remainder of the race, the final one of the season, was cancelled. Afterward, in a tribute to Wheldon, who racked up 16 victories over the course of his IndyCar career, drivers circled the Las Vegas track for five laps while fans looked on from the stands. It was later reported that prior the race, Wheldon had inked a multi-year deal with Andretti Autosport to replace Danica Patrick (the first-ever female to win an IndyCar race), who planned to leave IndyCar for NASCAR.