The 33-year-old, born in Buckinghamshire and twice a winner of the Indy 500, was involved in a multi-car accident 13 laps into the race which sent his vehicle flying and left wreckage and debris across the track. Wheldon’s car flew over another and caught part of the catch fence just past the apex of turn two. The incident left Townsend Bell’s car upside down and smouldering cars strewn on the track. Wheldon, who lived in Florida, was flown by helicopter to University Medical Center in Las Vegas for treatment before his death was announced two hours later.
“IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries,” IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
“I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff,” said Franchitti, a former Andretti Green team-mate of Wheldon.”
The Scot, who was not involved in the crash, added: “I love hard racing but that to me is not really what it’s about. One small mistake from somebody . .Right now I’m numb and speechless. One minute you’re joking around in driver intros and the next he’s gone.
“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.
“We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships and now it doesn’t matter.”
Wheldon started at the back of the 34-car line-up but quickly started to make his way through the field before the pile-up, which injured three other drivers. A number of cars came into contact on turn two, sending several of them flying through the air, smashing into the outside wall and catch fence. With cars smouldering and debris littering the track, the race was red-flagged as crews worked on fences and removed the damaged cars.
The race was cancelled and drivers returned later for a moving and tearful five-lap tribute. A popular figure, Wheldon was the 2005 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion and he won the Indy500 race that year and also in 2011 – the 100th anniversary of the event.
When the drivers returned to the track, Franchitti was sobbing uncontrollably as he was strapped back into his car.
Crews lined up along the pit lane and fans in the stands stood silently as the drivers paid tribute.
The cancelling of the race meant that Franchitti won his third straight series title. Wheldon had not raced since winning the most recent Indy 500 in May. While not a household name in Britain, Wheldon was among the most successful British drivers in world motor sports.