LAS VEGAS (AP) - Dan Wheldon, who moved to the United States from his native England with hopes of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to twice prevail at his sport’s most famed race, died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300.
One of the most well-liked drivers in the paddock, Wheldon was 33.
He called the Indy 500 “the biggest sporting event in the world,” and his second and final win there came in a most unexpected fashion. Trailing rookie JR Hildebrand with only one turn remaining, Wheldon was resigned to finishing second for the third straight year.
Then Hildebrand brushed the wall just seconds away from what seemed like certain victory, giving Wheldon one of the luckiest breaks ever at the Brickyard. He crossed the line in front, making the final lap the only one he led in the entire race.
Wheldon returned to the track the next morning for the traditional photo session with the winner, kissing the bricks as his 2-year-old son Sebastian sat on the asphalt alongside him, and his wife, Susie, held their then-2-month-old son Oliver.
“That’s Indianapolis,” Wheldon said after this year’s Indy win. “That’s why it’s the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Such was the case again Sunday at Las Vegas.
Wheldon started last in the 34-car field and was up to 24th quickly, but still well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble on the fateful lap. Still, he had no way to avoid the wrecks in front of him. There was no time to brake or steer out of trouble. His car sailed into the fence extending high over the track barrier, and about two hours later, his death was announced.
Wheldon began driving go-karts as a 4-year-old, and racing was a constant in his life as he attended school in England as a child, winning eight British national titles along the way. He moved to the U.S. in 1999, trying to find sponsor money to fund his dream, and by 2002 _ after stints in some lower-profile open-wheel series, such as the F2000 championship, Toyota Atlantic Series and IndyLights _ he was on the IndyCar grid for the first time.
Wheldon was a fast study. He got his first IndyCar Series ride in 2002, competing twice with Panther Racing, then replaced Michael Andretti when Andretti retired the next season and won Rookie of the Year.
His first victory came the next season, in Japan, and he finished second in the championship standings behind Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. The next year, he was the series champion. NASCAR teams talked to him about changing series. So did Formula One organizations.
In the end, he decided IndyCar was his calling.
“The biggest thing for me is the Indianapolis 500,” Wheldon said in 2005, not long after becoming the first Englishman since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the race. “It would be really difficult to leave this series because of that race.”
A star was born at that 2005 Indy 500 _ and it wasn’t necessarily Wheldon, the winner. Danica Patrick was a rookie at Indy that year, and not only did she steal the show, she nearly took the biggest prize as well. Wheldon passed Patrick with less than 10 laps to go and held on for the victory, and that wasn’t the last time those two would share a spotlight.