LAS VEGAS -- Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the most popular drivers in open-wheel racing, died Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a horrific multi-car crash on Lap 11 of the IndyCar Series season finale.
Officials decided to call the race, but the drivers did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon. IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard made the official announcement of Wheldon's death without further comment.
"IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries," Bernard said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and owners, have decided to end the race. In honor of Dan Wheldon, the drivers have decided to do a five-lap salute to in his honor."
Wheldon, 33 and the 2005 series champion from Emberton, England, was competing in only his third IndyCar race of the season, trying to win the event and earn a $5 million bonus that was part of a league promotion for drivers who didn't compete full-time in the series this year.
He was the only driver to accept the challenge. This year's Indy 500 was the second time Wheldon had won the prestigious event. He also won it in 2005 and won16 times overall in his IndyCar career
Wheldon was expected to replace Danica Patrick next season in the Go-Daddy-sponsored car for Andretti Autosport.
Patrick is moving to NASCAR full-time in 2012.
Wheldon was airlifted from the Las Vegas track at 1:19 p.m. local time Sunday and taken to a nearby hospital, becoming the first IndyCar driver to die on the track since rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice on the morning of race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.
As word began to spread that his injuries were fatal, those at the track could not control their tears. Television cameras captured Ashley Judd, the wife of IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, dabbing at her eyes shortly before the official word came.
The remainder of the race was canceled. Drivers solemnly returned to the track for the five-lap tribute, almost all of them hiding their eyes behind dark sunglasses after being told their colleague was gone. As Roger Penske met with his team trackside and other drivers simply hugged those around them, Bernard made the announcement of Wheldon's death.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today," Bernard said.
When drivers returned to the track, Wheldon's No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard. Franchitti 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 crew workers from each team stood solemnly.
The race was only minutes old when Wheldon was one of 15 cars involved in the wreck that started when two cars touched tires.
Several cars burst into flames, and debris was all over the track, some of the impact so intense that workers needed to patch holes in the asphalt.
Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it airborne and sailed into what's called the "catch fence," which sits over the SAFER barrier that's designed to give a bit when cars make contact. Rescue workers were at Wheldon's car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.
Sunday's wreck left Townsend Bell upside down while smoldering cars and debris littered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway of the 1.5-mile oval.
The accident appeared to start when Wade Cunningham's car swerved on the track and JR Hildebrand drove over the left rear of Cunningham's car. Hildebrand appeared to go airborne, and Cunningham's car shot up into the wall, setting off a chain reaction among the cars behind him.
Some of those cars slowed, others didn't, and others spun in front of Wheldon and championship contender Will Power. There was so much chaos on the track it was hard to tell who was driving what car.
Power appeared to fly over Alex Lloyd's car, rolling into the catchfence and landing on its right side. His in-car camera showed one of the front tires coming toward him in the cockpit.
Wheldon then appeared to drive over Paul Tracy's car. Tracy seemed to be slowing but Weldon did not. He went airborne and spun into the fence.
The track was red-flagged following the accidents while crews worked on fences and removed smashed cars.
"It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible," said Patrick. "It was debris everywhere across the whole track, you could smell the smoke, you could see the billowing smoke on the back straight from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered."
Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.
"I'll tell you, I've never seen anything like it," Ryan Briscoe said. "The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from Terminator or something. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere.
So it was scary, and your first thoughts are hoping that no one is hurt because there's just stuff everywhere. Crazy."
Also injured in the crash were Hildebrand and Pippa Mann. Both will remain in the hospital overnight.
IndyCar said Mann was being treated for a burn to her right pinkie finger and will be released Monday morning, and Hildebrand was awake and alert but will be held overnight for further evaluation.
The accident spoiled what Bernard had hoped would be a showcase event for the struggling IndyCar Series.
The second-year CEO worked the entire season on turning the finale into a spectacle, and said he'd offer his resignation to the IndyCar board of directors if ABC's broadcast didn't pull a .8 ranking. His goal was to improve upon last year's season finale's horrible television rating and give the series some momentum for what's hoped to be a strong season in 2013 with the introduction of a new car and new manufacturers.
So Bernard poured everything into Las Vegas, renting the speedway from owner Bruton Smith and agreeing to promote the event himself. He landed enough sponsorship to at least break even on race, and the $5 million challenge bought him an enormous amount of publicity the entire year.
Bernard got the Las Vegas Strip to close to stage a parade of cars, hosted industry parties and a blackjack tournament all to boost interest in the race. He even got MGM Grand Resorts to offer a pair of tickets to anyone staying this weekend in one of the chain's 14 properties.
But what was hoped to be a day of celebration quickly turned somber.