IndyCar: Dan Wheldon five-lap tribute – The missing car

Dan Wheldon tribute, IndyCar (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Dan Wheldon tribute, IndyCar (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images) /

Ten years ago today, IndyCar lost 2005 champion and two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There is one part of the ensuing tribute that not everybody may have realized in the chaos of the day.

Tragedy struck the IndyCar world 10 years ago today, when a 15-car crash in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway took the life of 2005 series champion and two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon was competing in this race in an attempt 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 the following season.

He was not a full-time driver for the 2011 season after losing his ride with Panther Racing to J.R. Hildebrand behind the wheel of the #4 Honda.

Wheldon won the Indy 500, and in preparation for what needed to be a last-to-first effort at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the big payday, he competed at Kentucky Speedway two weeks prior and finished in 14th place after starting in last.

Wheldon piloted the #98 Honda for Bryan Herta Autosport to win the Indy 500, but he replaced Alex Tagliani, who had been the full-time driver of the #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda, at Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Tagliani drove the #98 Honda at the latter.

Many had predicted the chaos which would ensure at the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) oval in Las Vegas, Nevada, and many had expressed concerns before the green flag flew based on the pack racing and the speeds which were being seen in practice.

Additionally, there were 34 cars in the field, making Wheldon’s last-to-first challenge even more challenging.

No race had seen that many cars since the Indy 500 in 1997 featured 35, but that was at a track far more suitable for a huge field, that being the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosts a traditional 33-car field for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” annually.

Plus, this race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the final race for the Dallara IR07 spec cars prior to the arrival of the new chassis, which ended up being named the DW12 in Wheldon’s honor due to all the time he spent testing it. So in terms of cars getting torn up, concern was at an all-time low for most race teams.

Indeed, the first 10 laps were chaotic, with many cars barely avoiding contact which would have caused massive wrecks. But Wheldon was able to make his way through the field, moving up 10 spots from 34th to 24th place.

But on lap 11, all hell broke loose, albeit via a somewhat delayed reaction after the first two cars, including one that wasn’t actually collected in the accident, made contact. Everybody’s worst nightmare had come to reality in the form of a pileup involving nearly half the field.

The race was red-flagged quickly after the caution flag flew. The remaining cars in the field only did one lap around the debris field before the race was officially halted and the cars were brought down pit road at the start of lap 13.

Here’s a list of the 15 driver/car combinations officially involved in the wreck.

  • J.R. Hildebrand — #4 Panther Racing Honda
  • Paul Tracy — #8 Dragon Racing Honda
  • Will Power — #12 Team Penske Honda
  • Vitor Meira — #14 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda
  • Jay Howard — #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
  • Wade Cunningham — #17 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda
  • James Jakes — #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
  • Alex Lloyd — #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
  • Townsend Bell — #22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Honda
  • Pippa Mann — #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
  • Buddy Rice — #44 Panther Racing Honda
  • Tomas Scheckter — #57 Sarah Fisher Racing Honda
  • E.J. Viso — #59 KV Racing Technology—Lotus Honda
  • Dan Wheldon — #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda
  • Charlie Kimball — #83 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

A few hours later, it was announced that Wheldon had succumbed to the injuries he suffered in the wreck.

It was agreed that the race and thus the season would end at that point, but that a five-lap salute would be run in Wheldon’s honor in the three-wide formation, the traditional formation used to start the Indy 500.

With 15 cars involved in the wreck and an initial 34-car field, it would be implied that 19 cars would participate in the five-lap salute. That is exactly what happened, with the cars taking those five tribute laps in the order they had been running after the wreck occurred.

But only 18 of those 19 cars were the cars you’d expect to participate in it. One of them happened to be James Jakes’s #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, which was collected in the wreck but did not sustain a ton of damage.

With his car able to take part in the tribute, albeit with a spare front wing from KV Racing Technology—Lotus, he made his way back to the track and lined up in 19th place as the only driver in the seventh row.

So with the #18 Honda of Jakes in the field, that would make 20 cars.

But there weren’t 20 cars. There were 19. Why was this the case?

It’s simple and quite touching, actually. This car wasn’t missing from the Wheldon tribute. It was missing as a part of the Wheldon tribute. In other words, the reason for its omission from the salute was a way to further honor Wheldon.

This car was the #98 Honda, which had been running in sixth place at the time of the accident with Tagliani behind the wheel.

Wheldon had piloted that #98 Honda across the yard of bricks just four and a half months prior to become a two-time Indy 500 winner after race leader J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall in turn four, allowing Wheldon to become just the second driver to ever win the race on a last-lap pass and the first to lead only lap 200.

You can see the absence of that car when you watch the tribute or look at pictures. Instead of the #98 Honda lining up in the outside of the second row, it is the #38 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Graham Rahal. Rahal had been running in seventh place when the wreck occurred, and everyone behind him moved up by one position from their running order as well.

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The absence of Tagliani’s car from those five circuits is still something that sticks out as we mourn 10 years since Wheldon’s passing. Hopefully it means something to all who are reading and to his friends and family as well.