Motorsports fans were stunned and devastated on Sunday, October 16, when they saw the deadly collision at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Dan Wheldon's #77 car was involved, and audience and drivers alike watched and prayed as Wheldon was airlifted to a nearby hospital. When it was learned that Wheldon had died of his injuries, the race was abandoned and a five-lap salute to Wheldon was performed.
As we remember Dan Wheldon, our thoughts turn to some of his fellow drivers who also died while racing. We look at three who lost their lives to the sport they loved.
Born in England, Dan Wheldon (6/22/1978 – 10/16/2011) was in love with racing almost before he could walk. By age four, he was competing in go-kart races to great success. As he moved up the ranks of the junior racing world, he realized he could best further his career and fulfill his dreams across the ocean, so he moved to the U.S. when he was just 21.
In wasn't long before Wheldon began making waves. By 2002, he was racing in the IndyCar series – a dream come true, as the Indianapolis 500 was always his favorite race and his ultimate goal. The following year, he was honored as Rookie of the Year, and just three years after that, he took home his ultimate prize – first place at the Indy 500. He would win the Indy 500 again in 2011, in dramatic fashion, coming up from behind on the final turn of the final lap. Who could have known that his promising career – and life – would end just five months later.
At the time of his death, Wheldon was driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, though he had also raced with Panther Racing, Andretti Green Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. He is survived by his wife, Susie, and two young sons. His youngest was born in March 2011, in time to see his dad's greatest victory at Indy 2011.
Paul Dana (4/15/1975 – 3/26/2006) tried several careers before becoming a driver – he graduated from Northwestern University with a journalism degree and wrote about motorsports for Sports Illustrated and other publications. But that's not all; he was also a mechanic, a driving instructor and a marketer. In 1996, he began racing, and by 1998 he was truly getting noticed.
Like Wheldon, Dana raced in the IndyCar series. He never won an Indy 500, though he made a strong showing in the two he raced – seventh place in 2003 and tenth in 2004. While practicing for the 2005 Indy 500, he fractured his spine, taking him out of the race and the rest of the season. In 2006, Dana was ready to race again. The first race of the IndyCar series took place at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Dana was there. But as he ran in the practice session for that race, tragedy struck. Driver Ed Carpenter hit a wall, and Dana collided with debris from his car. Carpenter made it through the crash, but Dana wasn't so lucky. He died of his injuries, at just 30 years old. He was remembered by his teammates Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, who bowed out of the race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway as they mourned their friend.
One of the most famous drivers in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt (4/29/1951 – 2/18/2001) – known variously as the Man in Black, Darth Vader (both for the color scheme of his car and uniform) and The Intimidator (for his no-fear driving style) – won races with ease. He was Rookie of the Year in 1979, took seven Winston Cups, and took home the Daytona 500 victory in 1998, in addition to dozens of other wins over the course of a 20-plus-year career.
That long career brought speculation that the Intimidator was tiring out as the 1990s wound to a close. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was racing by then, and some thought the father would bow out gracefully and let the son take over the family legacy. Others noted that Earnhardt was starting to slip, achieving fewer wins in his later seasons. The 1998 Daytona victory put the lie to those speculations, as did his 2000 Talladega win, just four months before his death.
Earnhardt started strong in the 2001 Daytona 500, leading the pack for much of the race. But in the last lap of the race, Earnhardt was part of a multi-car crash. The crash didn't look too serious to observers, not nearly as dramatic as a crash earlier in the race that took out 18 cars. But, according to the New York Times' obituary, Earnhardt's car had "hit the wall virtually head-on, and he was pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital." The high-profile accident and the death of Earnhardt would prompt new safety regulations in NASCAR.
More than a decade after his death, Earnhardt continues to be remembered and honored, by fans and fellow drivers alike, with a special salute – three fingers held aloft for the #3 car and The Intimidator.
Written by Linnea Crowther