- Associated Press - Monday, October 17, 2011

LONDON (AP) - Formula One champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton hailed fellow Briton Dan Wheldon as a “true fighter” and an “inspirational” figure after the IndyCar driver was killed in a massive crash in Las Vegas.

Button recalled Wheldon, who died Sunday at the age of 33, as being a star of the British karting circuit in the 1990s before going on to win the Indianapolis 500 twice.

“I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90s, a true fighter,” Button said on Twitter.

“We’ve lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy … I can’t begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time.”

Wheldon, who was born in Buckinghamshire, a county just north of London, was also an inspiration to Hamilton after deciding to try his luck in the U.S. following a successful junior career during which he won eight British karting titles.

Dan was a racer I’d followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motor sport ladder in the UK,” said Hamilton, Button’s teammate at McLaren.

“He was an extremely talented driver. As a British guy who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration. This is a tragic loss at such a young age.”

Hamilton finished second in Sunday’s Korean Grand Prix, with Button fourth.

Wheldon died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300. He was involved in a 15-vehicle pile-up, his car flying over another and bursting into flames.

Wheldon was born in the small English village of Emberton and began driving go-karts as a 4-year-old.

Having failed to secure financial backing for his career in Europe, he moved to the U.S in 1999. In 2005, he became the first English driver since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Indy 500. Wheldon won the race for a second time this year.

Despite his success and stardom in the U.S., Wheldon was relatively unknown in his home country. Formula One racing grabs all the media coverage in Europe, with IndyCar receiving little notice.

Wheldon had been scheduled to compete next weekend at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in the Gold Coast 600 race, teaming with V8 Supercar champion James Courtney as a co-driver for two 186-mile touring car races on Saturday and Sunday.

Five other IndyCar drivers are scheduled to compete on the Gold Coast, including Australian Will Power, who suffered back injuries in Sunday’s crash in Las Vegas.

V8 series chairman Tony Cochrane said he expects some of the American-based drivers to pull out.

“If any driver wishes to pull out in respect, we would fully appreciate and understand that and be as supportive as we can,” Cochrane said Monday. “And we will find replacement drivers for anyone who wishes to drop out this weekend. We will cross that bridge and worry about that when we get over the initial shock and deal with it in due course.”

Cochrane said a memorial service would be held on Saturday morning at the Gold Coast track.

“He was very much looking forward to having his first … go in a V8 Supercar this coming weekend,” Cochrane said. “We have just been reminded in the most tragic of circumstances what can happen in motorsport. This is a terrible day.”

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AP Sports Writer Dennis Passa contributed to this report.