Dan Wheldon was IndyCar’s great comeback story — the brash, British former Rookie of the Year who’d pulled out of a humbling slump to take the Indy 500. But last October, on a crowded Vegas track, the fairy tale came to a chilling end.
One of the first things Wheldon did the day he died was to call Scott Dixon around 7 AM to tell him about his new tattoo. The two had become close despite their rivalry — or perhaps because of it — and their wives often hung out in each other’s RVs during races. When they saw each other at the prerace meeting later that day, Dixon inspected the handiwork. “I said, ‘Dude, that’s gonna annoy the shit out of you when you’re sweating in the car,’ ” Dixon recalls. “He said it hurt a little bit, but he was superexcited about it.”
Wheldon was less sanguine about the race. He and other drivers had not failed to notice that the race was shaping up to be a dangerous shit show. With a crowded field and cars running in packs on banked turns, the potential for smashups was high. “Dan was concerned like everybody else,” says former Indy driver Adrián Fernández, who visited his trailer before the race. But Wheldon’s prerace cockpit broadcast for ABC was full-on enthusiasm. He was practically breathless as he noted he’d soon be driving 222 miles per hour. “This is going to be a spectacle,” he said into the microphone as he sped through the pace laps.
Minutes later, he was dead.
Wheldon managed to pass 10 cars in less than two minutes, but there was no getting around the chain reaction that unfolded in front of him on the 11th lap. Moving at nearly a football field per second, Wheldon’s right tire struck the rear tire of another car and he was catapulted 108 yards through the air, a fireball smashing into the catch fence and sliding down toward the infield.
Shortly after the accident, the infield was a scene of mourning, with drivers crying openly. “He was a friend of all of ours,” Danica Patrick said in a whisper. “I just feel for his family.” Dario Franchitti was so distraught that he couldn’t get out of his car.
Critics have blasted Randy Bernard and IndyCar for allowing more cars on the track than was safe — especially on a banked one where a less experienced driver could hit speeds beyond his control — and for enticing Wheldon with the bonus money. But Dixon and others insist that the stunt played no part in their friend’s death, noting Wheldon worked with Bernard on the idea and would have raced that day if only a dollar was at stake.
“It bugs the heck out of me, people making these comments,” Andretti says. “Every driver that straps himself in knows the danger of what they’re dealing with and the consequences. Dan would be really upset at that.”
In December, IndyCar officials released the results of their investigation into the crash. They cited a “perfect storm” of factors, including “track geometry . . . [that] not only allowed for increased probability for car-to-car contact but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers.” The report concluded that while the accident could have happened at any time and on any track, “the dynamic of the current car and the overall track geometry at Las Vegas Motor Speedway . . . appears to have been causal to this incident.”
The report said that Wheldon’s car was traveling 165 miles per hour when he went airborne, and that he suffered an “unsurvivable injury” when he was struck in the head by a pole that was part of the catch fence.
In the meantime, racers are asking pointed questions. “These stupid ovals, going wheel to wheel, they’re like missiles,” Brad Baytos says. “I don’t know why they have to go those speeds. On TV, you’re not gonna know if a car’s going 180 or 220. Sucks that something that bad has to happen to make changes. I’m devastated. It sucks he’s gone and I’ll never see him again.”
Wheldon himself had a fatalistic view of the sport he loved. “I never worry about death,” he once said. “No. If I go that way, then so be it — as long as I am leading.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.