Motorsport was in mourning Sunday, after a fiery multicar pileup claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon, described by the New York Times as "a popular and congenial race-car driver from England," was 33, married to Susie, with two children, Sebastian, 2, and 6-month-old Oliver.
According to an Associated Press report, although Wheldon started last in the 34-car field and was "still well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble" on the 12th lap, there was no time to brake or steer out of the crash zone. Wheldon's car flew over another vehicle, hit the fence and skidded upside down before bursting into flames.
"It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible," Danica Patrick, eracing in her last IndyCar, was quoted as saying. "It was debris everywhere across the whole track, you could smell the smoke, you could see the billowing smoke on the back straight from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered."
Wheldon's helmet hit the wall, causing an "unsurvivable head injury," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying.
Wheldon had been airlifted from the track to University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead — although, Fox News reports, officials had not ruled out that he died on impact.
According to the Sports Illustrated report:
The impact was so severe the roll hoop broke off the top of his car. Wheldon was unconscious when safety workers arrived at the scene of his crash. A yellow tarp was quickly placed over his car to block the others from seeing the damage inside Wheldon's cockpit.
Fox reported that Wheldon's three brothers, his sister, and his wife and two sons were at the track at the time of the crash.
After a drivers' meeting, Sunday's race was called off but those cars not ensnarled in the wreck returned to the track and made five slow laps in honor of Wheldon, to the sounds of "Amazing Grace."
Four other drivers injured in the crash — Pippa Mann, J.R. Hildebrand and Will Power — were also brought to UMC by ambulance. Manna and Hildebrand were being held overnight, while Power had been discharged.
IndyCar, meanwhile, said on its Twitter page late Sunday that:
INDYCAR is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon passed away from unsurvivable injuries. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dan and his family.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation President and CEO Jeff Belskus was quoted by CNN as saying:
"He was a great champion of the Indianapolis 500 and a wonderful ambassador for the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of motorsports.
"Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man — good friend to so many in this sport. His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track."
Wheldon had a chance to split a $5 million bonus with a fan if he could win Sunday's IndyCar World Championships — a "gimmick" that led an LA Times commentator to ponder whether race safety had been compromised.
IndyCar has not had a fatality since Paul Dana was killed at Homestead in 2006 in a crash during a warmup, the AP reports.
In an obituary of sorts, the news service wrote that:
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 United States 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.
British Formula One champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton paid tribute to Wheldon, describing him as "talented and inspirational" driver, the Telegraph reports.
Button, who knew Wheldon from their karting days, wrote on Twitter: "Just woken up to the most horrific news. Dan Wheldon RIP... I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90s, a true fighter."