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Las Vegas, NV (Sports Network) - Former IZOD IndyCar Series champion and two- time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died from injuries sustained in a horrifying 15-car crash during Sunday's 300-mile season-finale race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was 33 years old.
Wheldon, who captured his series title in 2005 and won his second Indianapolis 500 five months ago, was fatally injured after his car became airborne. The vehicle then appeared to hit the outside wall and catch the fence along the backstretch before erupting into flames. Rookie drivers Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe triggered the crash when they made contact in turn two.
IndyCar Chief Executive Officer Randy Bernard made the announcement of Wheldon's death at 3:00 p.m. local time -- roughly two hours after the accident occurred.
"IndyCar is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon passed away from unsurvivable injuries," Bernard said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. IndyCar, its drivers and teams have decided to end the race."
Shortly after, drivers made a five-lap tribute to Wheldon around the 1.5-mile track. His car number, 77, was the only one posted on the track's scoring pylon.
IndyCar officials ruled the Las Vegas event incomplete and championship points would include races up through Kentucky, which was held on October 2.
Wheldon was running behind Cunningham and Hinchcliffe at the time. Wheldon had to start from the rear of the field because he was the only driver eligible to split a $5 million bonus with a lucky fan if he would have won the race.
He was immediately airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
"It was just a horrendous accident," said Paul Tracy, who was one of the drivers involved in the crash.
Championship contender Will Power was one of the 15 drivers involved. His car went airborne as well. Power, who entered the last race of the season trailing Dario Franchitti by 18 points, was transported to the hospital by ground after complaining of lower back pain shortly after the wreck. He was released later.
Franchitti won his record third straight and fourth overall IndyCar championship. He was running 14th when IndyCar officials stopped the race. Both Franchitti and Power started on row nine after disappointing runs in Friday's qualifying.
"I could see within five laps people were starting to do crazy stuff," Franchitti said. "I love hard racing but that to me is not really what it's about."
J.R. Hildebrand and Pippa Mann were also taken to the hospital. Mann had to be helped out of her car, and was awake and alert. Both drivers were held overnight for further evaluation.
After posting speeds more than 220 mph during practice sessions at Las Vegas, many drivers had expressed major concerns about their safety at this track.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Power's teammate, Ryan Briscoe, who was not involved in the wreck. "The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from 'Terminator' or something. It was scary."
It had been more than five years since IndyCar had a fatality at a track. Paul Dana was killed in a practice crash hours before the start of the 2006 season- opening race at Homestead, FL.
In just his third start this season, Wheldon drove the same Sam Schmidt Motorsports car that is normally occupied by Alex Tagliani. Wheldon also drove that car at Kentucky, finishing 14th. Tagliani was behind the wheel of the No.98 for Bryan Herta Autosport at Las Vegas.
"Dan Wheldon was a tremendous competitor, a great racer and an even better person," team owner Sam Schmidt said in a statement. "It was an honor to have him be a part of our team. All of us at Sam Schmidt Motorsports are deeply saddened by his passing."
Wheldon pulled off a stunning upset in the centennial anniversary of the Indy 500 on May 29. His win came at the expense of Hildebrand, who crashed coming out of final turn of the last lap while leading. Wheldon's first Indy 500 victory came in 2005, the same year he claimed the series title, driving for Andretti Green Racing.
"We are incredibly saddened at the passing of Dan Wheldon," Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation President and CEO Jeff Belskus said in a statement. "He was a great champion of the Indianapolis 500 and a wonderful ambassador for the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of motorsports. Most importantly, he was a fantastic husband, father and man - a good friend to so many in this sport. His memory will live forever at the Speedway, both through the magnitude of his accomplishments on the track and his magnetism off the track. Our deepest sympathies are extended to his entire family, team and fans."
Franchitti and Wheldon were longtime friends and former teammates at Andretti Green.
"Right now, I'm numb and speechless," Franchitti said. "One minute you're joking around in driver intros and the next he's gone. He was six years old when I first met him. He was this little kid, and the next thing you know, he was my teammate. We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and today it doesn't matter."
Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and two sons, Sebastian and Oliver.
10/17 10:58:42 ET
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