Condolences to the friends and family of 33 year-old Daniel Clive "Dan" Wheldon, a British race car driver who died Sunday during a multi-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon was involved in a 15-car accident during lap 11 of the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale. The driver had to be extricated from his car after the massive pile-up and was airlifted to a local hospital with what were described as "unsurvivable injuries." His death was announced by IndyCar officials about two hours later.
Known as one of the world's best (and nicest) race car drivers, Wheldon was the 2005 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion, and winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and 2011. His death sends ripples across the race car community but is felt even more strongly in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida where I happen to be spending the weekend. Weldon loved the area, enjoyed living by the water, and thought St. Petersburg was a great place to raise a family. St. Pete residents were proud to call the celebrity one of their own and tributes have been pouring in all day from locals who knew him personally and professionally. He was an active figure at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix where fans called him gracious and very approachable.
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“The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the entire St. Petersburg community are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon during the IndyCar Championships in Las Vegas. As a beloved resident of St. Petersburg,Dan wove himself and his family into the community with his kindness and generosity. Kevin Savoree and Kim Green (Co-owners of the Honda Grand Prix), along with our entire organization join me in offering our sincere condolences to his wife and family. Our prayers are with them and the entire IndyCar community during this very difficult time.”
Upon hearing of Wheldon's death, St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster reflected on calling Wheldon after he won the Indy 500 this year:
“The day after the race when he’s doing all of the sports networks and the interviews I called him just to leave a congratulatory message and he answered and he said, 'Hello, Mayor'. I was his mayor and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Foster watched video of the horrific crash on television, along with millions of other IndyCar fans. He saw Wheldon start in the back of the pack and cheered as the driver quickly worked his way through the 34-car field before the wreck.
"It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible," said Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start. "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.
The much-hyped race was supposed to mark the beginning of IndyCar's return to the national stage. Before it started, the speculation was all about whether Dario Franchitti would win another championship and whether Wheldon -- who had pulled off a stunning upset in May to win his second Indianapolis 500 -- could win the race and claim a special $5 million prize.
But in the end, none of that mattered. While safety is always an issue in the sport, and there will no doubt be an investigation into the accident, now is the time to remember a devoted husband and father of two. Wheldon married his long-time personal assistant and best friend Susie Behm in 2008. The couple had two sons: Sebastian and Oliver who, along with Susie, were by Wheldon's side when he passed away.
When drivers returned to the track, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the scoreboard. With the race called off, drivers climbed back into their cars and drove five laps around the oval to honor their friend.
Dario Franchitti, a former teammate of Wheldon's, sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the tribute laps. Over speakers at the track, the song Danny Boy blared, followed by Amazing Grace as hundreds of crew workers from each team stood solemnly.
IndyCar has lost a great champion and ambassador for the sport in Dan Wheldon. RIP.
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