On this date in 2011, the world lost IndyCar champion and two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in a 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Sunday, October 16, 2011, was supposed to be a day of celebration, not just for either Dario Franchitti or Will Power as the newest IndyCar champion, but potentially for Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon and one lucky fan had a chance to split $5 million through the GoDaddy Challenge if the former series champion and reigning Indy 500 winner had been able to win the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway from 34th place on the grid. No IndyCar race had seen more than 33 cars since 1997.
Appropriately, the 33-year-old Briton had just signed a contract to reunite with Andretti Autosport and drive the GoDaddy-sponsored Chevrolet in season number one with the new chassis he had spent ample time developing after being left without a full-time ride in 2011. Danica Patrick had planned a full-time move to NASCAR, freeing up the seat.
Instead, October 16, 2011, turned into one of the darkest days in IndyCar history.
After Wheldon moved up 10 spots in as many laps, a slight touch between two cars several rows ahead of him in what was an old school pack race resulted in a 15-car wreck. With no time to react, several cars spun, slid up the track, made contact with other cars, and/or went airborne.
Wheldon’s car got the worst of it, sending him head-first into the catchfence and completely annihilating the roll bar cockpit protection device. He was airlifted to a local hospital and pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Later reports stated that he died on impact.
IndyCar officially halted the race after 12 laps, and the collective decision was made not to resume the race, thus ending the season — and the Dallara IR-05 era, hence the unusually large entry list.
However, an agreement was reached for the cars not involved in the wreck, led by race leader Tony Kanaan, to do a five-lap salute in a three-wide, Indy 500-type formation in Wheldon’s honor.
That is, except for one.
One of the cars in the wreck, the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda of James Jakes, wasn’t all that damaged in the wreck, and it was fine to take part in the salute — that is, after fitting a spare front wing from KV Racing Technology—Lotus.
The inclusion of the No. 18 Honda would have resulted in 20 cars, not just the 19 unaffected by the wreck, taking part in the salute.
But in Wheldon’s honor, that number was kept at 19.
Wheldon had won the Indy 500 earlier that year in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport. His No. 98 Honda was fielded in partnership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports for this race, a race he ironically won after his old Panther Racing entry crashed while his replacement, J.R. Hildebrand, was leading in the final turn on the final lap.
The race before the season finale at Las Vegas at Kentucky Speedway, Wheldon drove Alex Tagliani’s Indy 500 pole-winning No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Honda as a way to prepare for the GoDaddy Challenge. Tagliani did not compete.
The No. 98 Honda was brought back for Las Vegas for the first time since the Indy 500, and Tagliani drove it. Wheldon remained in the No. 77 Honda.
Tagliani’s No. 98 Honda was one of the 19 cars not involved in the wreck, with him running in sixth place at the time of the caution and ultimately the race-ending red flag.
But in Wheldon’s honor, the car in which he won the Indy 500 did not take part in the five-lap salute.
All drivers running from seventh to 20th moved up a spot, with seventh place Graham Rahal moving to the outside of the second row in Tagliani’s place. Jakes’ wounded No. 18 Honda ran 19th, behind the six rows of three.
James Hinchcliffe ended up driving what was supposed to be Wheldon’s No. 27 Chevrolet in 2012, and he quickly became one of IndyCar’s most popular and likable drivers.
Now (unofficially) retired from IndyCar competition, the six-time race winner and former Indy 500 polesitter is a full-time announcer in the NBC booth during IndyCar races alongside Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell. Bell was one of the other 14 drivers involved in the crash.
The 2012-era chassis was renamed the Dallara DW12 in Wheldon’s honor. The chassis is still used to this day.
In April 2021, Andretti Autosport signed Dan and Susie Wheldon’s two sons, Sebastian and Oliver, as junior drivers, and earlier this year, major Andretti sponsor Gainbridge began backing their efforts as they look to make their way up the ranks of open-wheel racing like their father did. The boys are now 14 and 12 years old.