Nine years ago today, two-time Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon was killed in a massive crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
At the age of 33, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon passed away tragically following a 15-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the season finale nine years ago today.
Wheldon, a part-time driver in 2011 after losing his ride with Panther Racing following the 2010 season, was competing in just his third race of the year and his second behind the wheel of the #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda.
Alex Tagliani had been the full-time driver of the #77 Honda, but ahead of the penultimate race of the season at Kentucky, Bryan Herta Autosport returned with the #98 Honda that Wheldon had piloted to the Indy 500 victory that May in stunning fashion over the #4 Panther Racing Honda of J.R. Hildebrand that he had driven to consecutive runner-up finishes in the race in 2009 and 2010.
Tagliani shifted to the #98 Honda for the final two races of the season while Wheldon moved to the #77 Honda, the car in which he was ultimately involved in his fatal accident on lap 11 of the scheduled 200-lap event around the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) oval in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A total of 34 cars had started this race, the most in an individual race since the 1997 Indy 500 featured 35 at a far more suitable track for a huge field; the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the traditional 33 cars for the Indy 500 each year.
The 2011 season finale as the final race for the IR–05 Dallara spec cars prior to the arrival of the new chassis, named the DW12 in Wheldon’s honor due to all the time he spent testing, so it meant a lot less from a material standpoint in terms of cars getting torn up.
As many expected, the first 10 laps of the race were chaotic to put it mildly, and they unfortunately had dire consequences that extended far beyond torn-up cars that were to be outdated by the time the checkered flag flew.
Wheldon, competing to win $5 million as a part of the GoDaddy Challenge just hours after signing a deal to compete full-time for Andretti Autosport behind the wheel of the #27 GoDaddy Chevrolet in 2012, was forced to start in last place as a part of the last-to-first challenge.
The 16-time IndyCar race winner had worked his way up 10 positions to 24th place amid the early high-speed pack racing by the time turns one and two became what many would consider hell on earth.
Several hours later, after it had been announced that Wheldon had passed away, it was announced that the remainder of the race — now on lap 13 and under a red flag — had been abandoned.
But it was also announced that the cars that weren’t involved in this horrific, fiery wreck would do a five-lap salute in Wheldon’s honor in a three-wide formation modeled after the start of the Indy 500.
As noted, a total of 15 cars were involved in the wreck.
Aside from Wheldon’s #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda, those cars were the #4 Panther Racing Honda of J.R. Hildebrand, the #8 Dragon Racing Honda of Paul Tracy, the #12 Team Penske Honda of Will Power, the #14 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda of Vitor Meira, the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda of Jay Howard and the #17 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda of Wade Cunningham.
The #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda of James Jakes, the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda of Alex Lloyd, the #22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Honda of Townsend Bell, the #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda of Pippa Mann, the #44 Panther Racing Honda of Buddy Rice, the #57 Sarah Fisher Racing Honda of Tomas Scheckter, the #59 KV Racing Technology—Lotus Honda of E.J. Viso and the #83 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Chalie Kimball were also involved.
So the five-lap salute to Wheldon featured 19 cars.
However, there is one little-known fact about this five-lap salute regarding which 19 cars participated in that salute.
“The cars that weren’t involved in the wreck” wasn’t 100% accurate.
One of those 19 cars was the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda of James Jakes, which was also one of the 15 cars that had been involved in the wreck. It had not sustained much damage, so it was able to continue.
But with Jakes in the field, that would have made for a 20-car tribute.
So where was the missing car?
The missing car was not missing from the tribute.
It was “missing” as a part of a further tribute for Wheldon.
That car was the undamaged #98 Honda of Tagliani. Out of respect for the fallen Wheldon, Tagliani did not drive the #98 Honda in this tribute, as this was the car which Wheldon had piloted across the yard of bricks just four and a half months earlier to become the 18th two-time winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
Tagliani was running in sixth place at the time of the wreck, and as you can see in the pictures and in the video of the five-lap salute, it was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Graham Rahal, who had been running in seventh at the time of the wreck, who lined up on the outside of row two.