During the Long Beach Grand Prix in April, Bryan Herta announced that Dan Wheldon was going to drive one of his cars in the Indianapolis 500.
Bryan Herta Autosport was making its second trip to the Brickyard, but this time with an IndyCar Series champion and Indy 500 winner.
It was an amazing partnership. Herta was running a fledgling Firestone Indy Lights team and entered only one IndyCar Series race prior to the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series championship with Andretti Green Racing in 2005, did not have a full-time ride and was available.
Wheldon and Herta teamed up – they were teammates with Andretti Green for nearly four years – and pulled off one of the most dramatic wins in Indy 500 history.
Wheldon took the lead from J.R. Hildebrand on the last turn of the last lap of the race. Hildebrand, a rookie driver who had a comfortable lead as the Indy 500 winded down, slid into the turn 4 wall. His mangled car crossed the finish line in second place.
Wheldon had enough time to pass Hildebrand and win his second Indy 500.
Wheldon and Herta, a Hart High graduate who lives in Valencia, teamed up once again for the IndyCar Series season finale this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon was driving one of two entries from Bryan Herta Autosport in the race.
But the Las Vegas race did not have quite the fairy-tale ending that Indianapolis had. Wheldon died tragically in a fiery crash on lap 12 of the Las Vegas race. He was caught up in a 15-car crash that sent two cars into the track’s catch fence.
Three drivers were hospitalized in the wreck. Wheldon was taken by helicopter to University Medical Center in Las Vegas. Reports were that he was unconscious, but in stable condition, when he left the race track.
IndyCar Series officials announced that Wheldon had died almost two hours after the crash.
“Everyone at Bryan Herta Autosport is reeling from the loss of our friend and teammate Dan Wheldon,” Herta said in a release. “Dan was the glue that bound our little team together. It was his spark and belief in us that carried us all to Victory Lane at Indianapolis this year, and his legacy within the sport as a tremendous champion and competitor is unquestioned. But more than that, Dan became my little brother from our time together as teammates at AGR. I watched with pride as he developed from the brash young hotshot on the circuit to a man who was a great husband and father, ambassador, friend, champion and hero.”
The remaining 19 drivers in the race, those whose cars were not wrecked in the crash, paid tribute to Wheldon with a five-lap parade around the track.
The drivers, teams and IndyCar Series officials decided not to continue the race.
Wheldon had to start from the back of the 34-car field. He was the only driver taking the IndyCar Series challenge. Any driver who was not full time in the IndyCar Series could enter the race with a chance to win $5 million. The only stipulation was that those drivers had to start from the back.
Wheldon competed in only two IndyCar Series races prior to the Las Vegas race. He won the Indy 500 and was 14th at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago.
Much of the blame for the deadly crash is being put on the number of cars in the field, 34, one more than the starting grid for the Indy 500. The large entry field combined with the 1.5-mile track, compared to the 2.5 mile track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, made for a deadly combination, some are saying.
Wheldon moved up 10 places in the first 10 laps of the race. He was in the middle of a pack of drivers with little experience and little to lose. In the end though, it was Wheldon who paid the ultimate price for other drivers’ mistakes.
A driver hasn’t died in an IndyCar Series race since Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway crashed in practice in 2006. Even Hildebrand’s crash at this year Indy 500, as scary as it was, was not fatal. Safety at the tracks and in the race cars have improved so much is such a short time.
It will be some time before the cause of Wheldon’s death is determined. Hopefully, the impact of his life will be remembered for a long time to come.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Susie and the boys, and all of Dan’s family and fans who are trying to make sense of this terrible loss,” Herta said. “We are all lucky and blessed to have had Dan Wheldon influence our lives, and his spirit lives on in each one of us. Godspeed my friend.”
Follow Tim Haddock on Twitter @thaddock.