A CHAMPION IS GONE

DAN WHELDON DIES OF INJURIES SUSTAINED IN 15-CAR CRASH AT LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

PHOTO: Bret Kelley/IZOD IndyCar Series.

What was supposed to be a time of celebration has instead turned into a time of great sorrow as Daniel Clive Wheldon, one of INDYCAR’s most beloved champions, is no longer with us.

On Lap 11 of today’s IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a fiery crash ensued and collected 15 cars, putting the race under a red flag. Among those in the incident, the 33-year-old Wheldon was the most severely involved as his car went airborne and slammed into the wall and catchfence in Turn 2. He was eventually airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

Roughly two hours into the red flag period, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard announced that Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, a former series champion, a husband and a father of two young boys, had died of his injuries.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Dan and his family,” said Bernard in a brief press conference at the track.

Bernard then said that the drivers and teams had decided to cancel the rest of the race. Shortly after, the remaining drivers and their cars then ran slowly in three-wide formation for five laps in honor of their fallen peer and friend, with crewmen lining up along pit road and the songs “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace” playing over the track’s PA system.

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As drivers and team members walked away from a meeting inside the LVMS media center, ABC cameras caught some of them praying or being consoled. Moments later, after Bernard’s announcement was aired on television and as the tribute laps drew closer, the cameras caught Dario Franchitti — who clinched the championship today as his title rival Will Power was one of those collected in the massive early crash — in tears as members of his team strapped him into his car one more time.

The image encapsulated the feeling of the entire IndyCar family. Instead of crowning a champion and reflecting on another season, they are mourning the loss of a great competitor and person. The only solace is that he died doing what he loved to do.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching thing about Wheldon’s passing is that it looked like he was about to come full-circle after some rough times.

Wheldon won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar titles with Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport) and then, after migrating to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006, he contended for that year’s championship as well. But 2007 and 2008 were not as successful and a switch to Panther Racing, the team that gave him his start in IndyCar in 2002, did not yield any wins in 2009 and 2010.

When Panther decided to go in a new direction, Wheldon was left without a ride and some had tagged him as strictly an oval specialist in a series that was heavily shifting toward road and street racing.

But he shot right back onto the radar this past May as his one-off Indy 500 effort with Bryan Herta Autosport wound up giving him his second triumph at the Brickyard when he made a last-lap pass of J.R. Hildebrand, who crashed with the lead on the final corner.

After that, Wheldon spent his time working as a commentator for Versus’ coverage of the series and, along with BHA, did development work on the 2012 Dallara IndyCar. He returned to action for Sam Schmidt Motorsports two weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway, and today, he was to try and win from the back of the field for a $5 million reward that he’d split with a fan.

In addition, he had been linked to potentially returning to Andretti Autosport next season and embarking on an attempt to create more accomplishments that would add on to his already impressive body of work.

Instead, the sport is trying to come to grips with a tragedy that has taken the life of a charismatic and energetic human being.

As I reflect upon Wheldon at this time, many things shine through to me: His good-natured spirit, his devotion to his family, his amazing abilities in a race car, his deep love for the sport, and, of course, that cheshire-cat grin. I saw it a few times in person when he won the series title at Watkins Glen in ’05 and once more at Indy this past May.

Even today, as I read a report on the accident that took his life, there he was in the photo — smiling. I didn’t want to look at it and quickly hit the back button, but my laptop froze and I was forced to look back at him with a lump in my throat for a few seconds. It’s still surreal to comprehend that we’ll never see him and that smile again.

My thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends and his colleagues within the racing community.