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Indy 500 winner Wheldon dies in crash

October 17, 2011

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— Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died Sunday after his car became ensnared in a fiery 15-car pileup, flew over another vehicle and landed in a catch fence just outside turn 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 33-year-old racer was a two-time Indy winner, including this year’s race.

Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power, were hurt in the pileup during Lap 11.

Wheldon was airlifted from the track to University Medical Center; about two hours later, his colleagues were told of his death by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who said Wheldon’s injuries were “unsurvivable.”

“One minute you’re joking around at driver intros. The next, Dan’s gone,” said Dario Franchitti, whose wife, actress Ashley Judd, had to bring him a box of tissues. “I lost, we lost, a good friend. Everybody in the IndyCar series considered him a friend. He was such a good guy. He was a charmer.”

With the race canceled, drivers, many sobbing openly, took part in a five-lap salute around the 1.5-mile oval in honor of one of the sport’s biggest stars.

The race was only minutes old when Wheldon, who started at the back of the 34-car field and was in position for a $5 million payday if he had won, couldn’t steer clear of a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.

Within seconds, several cars burst into flames and debris covered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway. Some points of impact were so devastating workers had to patch holes in the asphalt.

Video replays showed Wheldon’s car turning over as it went airborne and sailed into what’s called the catch fence, which sits over a barrier that’s designed to give a bit when cars make contact. Rescue workers were at Wheldon’s car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ryan Briscoe said. “The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from Terminator or something.”

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