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Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon of St. Petersburg killed in IndyCar crash

For all the global fame and fortune that comes with winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, Dan Wheldon felt home in St. Petersburg.

He tooled along Fourth Street, stopped at Starbucks and doted on his young sons at his Snell Isle home. A native of England, he fully adopted St. Petersburg as his home.

The 33-year-old race car driver was killed Sunday in a 15-car crash at the IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas, leaving family, friends and racing acquaintances stunned.

"It's a tremendous blow for this sport and his adopted city," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said. "All I can think about is his wife and children at this time. As a community, we're just going to lift his family up and make sure they're supported.

"He was a member of this community. … He loved St. Pete. This was his home. We adopted him as our favorite racing son."

Wheldon's car sailed through the air just 11 laps into race, catching fire and slamming into the catch fence outside Turn 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was taken to University Medical Center in a helicopter. IndyCar announced at 6 p.m. that he was pronounced dead. An autopsy was planned for today.

"What can you say? We're going to miss him," said Chip Ganassi, Wheldon's former car owner. "Everybody in IndyCar died a little today."

The race was only a few minutes old when Wheldon, who started at the back of the 34-car field and was eligible for a $5 million payday had he won, was caught up toward the tail end of a wreck that started when two cars touched tires.

Several cars burst into flames, including Wheldon's, and debris was all over the track.

The race was stopped for two hours to clean the track and — in a move believed to be unprecedented in a major race following a driver's death — the race was not finished.

Instead, drivers took part in a five-lap salute then stopped.

"IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners, have decided to end the race."

When drivers returned to the track, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard. 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 pit crew workers stood solemnly.

"One minute you're joking around at driver intros. The next, Dan's gone," said Franchitti, whose wife, actor Ashley Judd, had to bring him a box of tissues. "I lost, we lost, a good friend. Everybody in the IndyCar series considered him a friend. He was such a good guy. He was a charmer."

Wheldon won the IndyCar series title in 2005, a season he started by winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and also captured his first Indy 500. The native of Emberton, England, moved to Snell Isle shortly before winning the St. Petersburg race.

"I was born and raised in England, but the people in this city have adopted me," Wheldon said in May as he prepared for this year's Indy 500, which he won. "I have so much support."

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was in office when IndyCar ran its first race around St. Petersburg's downtown streets — the first road course race in series history.

"It's a very sad day for Indy racing, and it's very sad day for St. Petersburg," said Baker, an Indianapolis native. "He always had a very positive attitude about everything. He was very positive about our city, very positive about racing.

"To me it's more of loss on a personal level."

Wheldon leaves wife, Susie, and sons Sebastian, 2, and Oliver, 7 months.

IndyCar had not had a fatality since Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006. He died after a crash in a morning warmup.

Sunday's wreck left Townsend Bell upside down as smoldering cars and debris littered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway of the 1.5-mile oval. The track was red-flagged, meaning the race stopped and cars called into the pits.

The 34-car field had one more entry than even the Indy 500, which takes place on a track a mile longer than Las Vegas. A few of the drivers in the field had not raced since Indy in May.

Wheldon passed several cars early but was well behind the first wave of cars that got into trouble. He could not avoid the wreck in front of him.

"I saw two cars touch each other up in front of me, and then I tried to slow down, couldn't slow down," driver Paul Tracy said. "Then Dan's car, from what I saw in the videos, came over my back wheel and over top of me. Just a horrendous accident."

Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power, were hurt.

Drivers Pippa Mann and J.R. Hildebrand also were taken to a hospital after complaining of dizziness. reported they were awake and alert and would remain in a hospital overnight for observation. Power was evaluated and released.

Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.

Franchitti avoided the accident and clinched his fourth series title.

"I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff. I love hard racing, but that to me is not really what it's about," Franchitti said before the announcement of Wheldon's death. "You saw what happened; one small mistake from somebody … ."

Times staff writer David DeCamp and Times wires contributed to this report.


Dan Wheldon

Born: June 22, 1978, in Emberton, England

Residence: St. Petersburg

Family: Wife, Susie; sons, Sebastian, Oliver

Accomplishments: Two-time winner of Indianapolis 500 (2005, 2011). Won six races in 2005, including Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, on his way to the IndyCar series championship. Won 16 IndyCar series races overall.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon of St. Petersburg killed in IndyCar crash 10/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 10:31am]
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