Dan Wheldon last night passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a multi-car accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Dan finished 2nd in the 1998 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and raced for the 1998 series championship (beaten by Jenson Button), before heading to the US where he finished 2nd in the 2000 Atlantics series and 2nd in the 2001 Indy Lights series, where he learned how to race on ovals.
Shortly thereafter he graduated to the IRL, what is now the IndyCar Series, where by 2004 he was winning races and in 2005 he became champion with Andretti-Green, winning the Indy 500 along the way. Despite his road course background in Europe he became renowned as a specialist on oval courses.
He switched to Target Chip Ganassi for a 3-year stint, scoring more race wins, before a moving to Panther Racing in 2009 where he was able to score 4 podiums over two years in the by-now midpack team. Out of a drive after 2010 he embarked on a part-season with Bryan Herta Autosport (partnered with Sam Schmidt Motorsport) in 2011, winning his second Indy 500 at the very last corner despite it being his first race start of the year. He was also entrusted with the initial development work on the 2012 Dallara IndyCar, before any other driver got his hands on it.
Ironically and tragically he was killed in the final race for the old, outdated, less safe IndyCar, in which he was competing at the behest of the IndyCar Series as part of a bid to win $2.5 million dollars each for himself and a fan.
However I am not going to use this opportunity to bash Dallara for the safety of the old car. There is a time and a place for that and it is not now. It may not have been a great car and there are difficult questions to be answered about its suitablity at this age on this track but the reality is 15 of them were damaged (most of them heavily), 3 of them got airborne and yet only one driver suffered serious injury. That is one too many but it could still have been 3 or 4 times worse.
That is no consolation to the family and friends of Dan Wheldon, and the tight-knit IndyCar community. Part of the reason IndyCar is tight-knit is because of the enduring spirit of Greg Moore in the late 90s who made it his business to be rivals on the track and friends off it, and who was tragically killed in strikingly similar circumstances in 1999. Dan Wheldon took the same attitude to his racing and was friends with many of his competitors, particularly the senior drivers such as Kanaan and Franchitti. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who could remain an enemy of Dan Wheldon for very long.
I am sad that it took this event for him to become famous in his home country and I hope he takes his rightful place among the legends of the sport.
The drivers of the undamaged cars chose to run 5 laps at Las Vegas in tribute to Dan, 3-abreast just as at the start of the Indy 500, the race that made his name.
I leave you with the closing words of what was a very professional and respectful ABC broadcast.
“Many people ask me why I always sign off ‘Till we meet again’. Because ‘Goodbye’ is always so final. Goodbye, Dan Wheldon.” – Marty Reid, ABC/ESPN.