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Racing world mourns the loss of Dan Wheldon

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Las Vegas, NV (Sports Network) - Dan Wheldon was hugely popular and greatly admired by his fans and fellow competitors around the auto racing world. His tragic death in a crash during Sunday's IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has the auto racing community in a deep state of mourning. Wheldon was an inspiration to all in the sport. He will be sorely missed.

In what was figured to be one of the most thrilling IZOD IndyCar Series races in memory suddenly turned into the racing circuit's darkest moment. Wheldon, 33, was involved in a horrific 15-car crash on lap 11 that sent his car sailing into catch fence along turn two before it erupted into flames.

Wheldon, driving the No.77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car, had an opportunity to split a $5 million bonus with a fan if he would have won the scheduled 300- mile season-ending race at Las Vegas. The Englishman had to start from the rear of the record 34-car field due to the rules of bonus program.

The race was also to determine the series championship. Dario Franchitti came to Las Vegas with an 18-point lead over Will Power.

Instead, the race was called off and no championship celebration took place. Roughly two hours after the accident, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had the difficult task of announcing Wheldon's death.

IndyCar had not experienced a fatality at a track since Paul Dana was killed in a practice crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

With heavy hearts, drivers later paid tribute to the fallen two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion with a five-lap parade around the 1.5-mile track. As bagpipes played "Amazing Grace" during the tribute, a somber mood was felt along pit lane, the garage area and the grandstands.

Franchitti claimed his record third straight and fourth overall IndyCar title, but that didn't matter to him. Franchitti, who was Wheldon's teammate at Andretti-Green Racing (now known as Andretti Autosport) from 2003-05, sobbed heavily while sitting in his car just before partaking in the parade laps.

Dan Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and two sons, Sebastian and Oliver.
"I was driving around there on the parade lap we did, and I was thinking about Dan," Franchitti said. "I was thinking of all Dan's stories and just things that we did. In situations like this, I think obviously the sadness, I was thinking of some of the fun times we had. But really right now it's just sad. It's just really, really sad. It's the ugly, ugly side of our sport. You see it all."

Danica Patrick, who ended her full-time career in IndyCar, could not hide her emotions as well.

"We're all very sad, and he was a friend to all of us," she tearfully said. "He'll be missed, and I just feel for his family."

Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and two sons, Sebastian and Oliver.

With Patrick moving over to NASCAR full-time in 2012, Wheldon was expected to replace her at Michael Andretti's team.

Wheldon was also scheduled to compete in next weekend's V8 Supercars event in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Tony Kanaan had planned on joining Wheldon for the race, but the Brazilian has since withdrawn. Kanaan and Wheldon were former teammates as well.

"He was one of my best friends and one of my greatest teammates back in the day," Kanaan said. "We race car drivers have to block this possibility, and unfortunately when it happens, it's really hard."

Wheldon pulled off a stunning upset in the May 29 Indy 500. His second win in IndyCar's most prestigious race of the year came at the expense of rookie J.R. Hildebrand, who crashed coming out of final turn of the last lap while leading. Wheldon made his first start of the season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, driving an entry for Bryan Herta Autosport. His first Indy 500 victory came in '05, as he became the first driver from the United Kingdom to win it since Graham Hill did so in 1966.

"Everyone at Bryan Herta Autosport is reeling from the loss of our friend and teammate Dan Wheldon," team owner Bryan Herta said in a statement. "Dan was the glue that bound our little team together. It was his spark and belief in us that carried us all to victory lane at Indianapolis this year, and his legacy within the sport as a tremendous champion and competitor is unquestioned."

"But more than that, Dan became my little brother from our time together as teammates at AGR. I watched with pride as he developed from the brash young hotshot on the circuit to a man who was a great husband and father, ambassador, friend, champion and hero."

At the end of the 2010 season, Wheldon lost his ride with Panther Racing after spending two years with the team. Hildebrand replaced him in the Panther's No.4 car.

Wheldon had recently served as test driver for IndyCar's new Dallara chassis at IMS.

In preparation for Las Vegas, Schmidt placed Wheldon in the No.77 car, which is normally occupied by Alex Tagliani, for the October 2 race at Kentucky Speedway. Wheldon started 28th and finished 14th there.

Wheldon's IndyCar career began in 2002, running two races for Panther. He drove for Andretti Green Racing and then Chip Ganassi Racing before returning to Panther for the start of the 2009 season.

"We're all going to miss him. A little bit of everybody in IndyCar racing died today," Ganassi said during a press conference on Sunday at Las Vegas.

Condolences from members of the racing community worldwide have been pouring in, particularly Formula One and NASCAR.

Wheldon had explored his options in F1 and NASCAR after his '05 IndyCar championship season, but his future in either circuit did not come to fruition.

He competed against many of F1's current stars, including McLaren driver and 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton.

"Dan was a racer I'd followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motorsports ladder in the UK," Hamilton said. "As a British guy, who not only went over to the [United] States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration."

Hamilton's teammate and 2009 F1 titleholder Jenson Button raced with Wheldon in Formula Ford and Formula Three.

"I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90's, a true fighter," Button noted.

Following Wheldon's death, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France issued a statement.

"NASCAR offers its deepest sympathies and condolences to the family of Dan Wheldon, his teammates, and the entire IndyCar Series community for their tragic loss [Sunday]," France said. "They will be in our thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of many drivers who shared their memories of Wheldon.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Wheldon at the National Guard Youth Challenge dinner about five years ago, and we crossed paths several times since then, mostly through our mutual partnership with the National Guard," Earnhardt said. "His success as a racer speaks for itself, but I will remember him as a true professional who was friendly, respectful, and genuine. On behalf of everyone at JR Motorsports, I send condolences to Dan's family, team, and friends in the racing community."

The 2012 IndyCar season is scheduled to begin on March 25 at St. Petersburg, FL, where Wheldon had resided.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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