Motorsport, particularly at the very highest level, has become significantly safer in recent decades. Whereas death was a presence that seemed to haunt the sport's every turn during the 1970s, it is today a less constant threat.
But it still exists. And when a driver or a track worker is killed doing what they love, it still packs a huge emotional punch. Perhaps it is even worse than back in the bloody days of one fatality per-season. If you got into motor racing in the 1970s, you knew you were immersing yourself in a sport where a competitor might die or suffer career-ending injuries on any given weekend. Don't like it? Don't get involved.
If you came to racing in the mid-90s, however – perhaps a year or two after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix had shaken the sport to its core — you would have a very different experience. Death was still a risk, of course, but it seemed less tangible as tireless work resulted in a safer sport, from Formula One down to the amateur level.
In recent years, however, a number of high profile deaths in F1, IndyCar, MotoGP and at Le Mans have changed perceptions; four years ago this week, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, one of those dark days fell on the sport.
The aftershocks from the death of Dan Wheldon, a 33-year-old IndyCar driver originally from Buckinghamshire in England, were heightened by his status in the sport. Like Senna in F1, IndyCar had seen one of its most significant stars on and off the track perish. At the time of his death, Wheldon had won the two biggest prizes in IndyCar: the series championship, and the Indianapolis 500. He'd won the latter twice, first alongside his series championship in 2005, and again in 2011. The first was pretty standard: fast driver has fast car, wins a lot of races. But Wheldon's second triumph at the 500 has gone down in history as one for he most dramatic ever. The myth surrounding it was only heightened by his death less than five months later.
By means of a rapid career re-cap, Wheldon was a boyhood karting rival of Jenson Button (here they are on-track as 10-year-olds) but relocated to the American racing scene as a 20-year-old due to a lack of funds. By 2002 he'd reached the pinnacle of U.S. single-seaters, IndyCar, and won the title and 500 double with the Andretti team in 2005. Three years at the powerhouse Ganassi team followed, in which he won six more races and was series runner-up in 2006.
His career seemed to dip in the following years, and despite good runs at Indy for Panther Racing in 2009 and '10 he dropped out of full-time competition in 2011. But in one of the most remarkable races in Indy 500 history, Wheldon won the 2011 event in a one-off entry for the fledgling Bryan Herta Autosport team, assuming the lead at the final corner when rookie leader J. R. Hildebrand lost control and slammed into the wall. Despite Wheldon's obvious abilities, it was an incredible giant-killing act given the size of his team.
Wheldon's decision to sit 2011 out had paid dividends: he'd won the biggest event of the year, and would be assured a seat at a top team for 2012 (indeed, before his death, he had signed to return to Andretti Autosport, the outfit for whom he'd won his 2005 title). Essentially, he now had several months off to enjoy the victory celebrations and spend time with his young family.
In the meantime he spent the summer helping to develop IndyCar's new 2012 car. But there was another offer on the table. IndyCar management gave him the chance to race at the season finale in Las Vegas; he'd start from the back of the grid, but if he could win, Wheldon and a randomly selected fan would win $2.5m each. Being a racer, Wheldon probably would have taken the challenge without the financial incentive; with a couple of million on offer it was impossible to turn down.
But something felt wrong from the start. The Las Vegas circuit was controversial: it had been modified since IndyCar last raced at the track, with the banking increased to what were seen as dangerous levels for single-seaters (it was more accustomed to hosting NASCAR events).
Wheldon started from the back of the grid as planned, and chatted to TV commentators over the radio during the warm up laps. He quickly began picking his way through the field from the start. It seemed highly unlikely that he'd be able to win, but it was going to be fun watching him try. And, after what happened at Indy, it was impossible to rule Wheldon out.
On lap 11 the TV pictures went on-board with the Brit as the commentators talked about his task for the race and updated viewers on his progress. Then a puff of tyre smoke appeared up ahead as two cars got together. Wheldon would have seen it in the distance; Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe had made contact, and then collected Hildebrand. From there, chaos ensued.
The resulting accident was both surreal and frightening. 15 cars were involved, with some flying into the air like toys. The bewildered commentators could barely make sense of what they had seen, with flaming wreckage strewn across the circuit and destroyed cars coming to a rest against walls. It resembled a scene from a disaster movie, not the final event in a sporting season. It seemed certain that someone had been badly hurt, but with so much carnage it was impossible to tell who. Chillingly, the lead commentator could only muster one observation: "It looks like Dan Wheldon might be involved in it…"
When the accident begun Wheldon had dived to the low side of the track to avoid the mess, but the concertina effect of the accident left him with nowhere to go. He'd slammed into another car, which acted as a ramp, and was flung high up the track and into the catch fence. His head suffered two impacts, with the second – when he came into contact with a trackside pole – effectively killing him on impact. He was airlifted to hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival.
Incredibly, no other driver or track worker suffered life-threatening injuries in the accident. The race was abandoned, with the competitors whose cars were still in one piece performing a five-lap tribute drive. Wheldon's friend and fellow racer Johnny Mowlem was on the Sky Sports TV broadcast that night. When the news came through, Mowlem broke down in tears. Even for those watching on TV, it felt disturbingly close to home.
Wheldon's death was profoundly shocking for IndyCar. He was immensely popular with drivers and fans alike. His peers poked fun at his vanity and obsession with expensive shoes, but Wheldon took it well and counted most of his rivals as friends. He was also extremely good with fans – perhaps the best ambassador IndyCar could claim – and never shied away from a photo or autograph request. He was good-looking and married with two young sons; though he'd come from the Home Counties, he was the embodiment of an American racing icon.
His death was a horrific and visual reminder of how dangerous motorsport can be. The death of a star driver brings home the truth of the sport's inherent danger far more. That might sound callous, but it cannot help but feel more real when it is someone who has been at the forefront of the sport – on TV, in print and online – for several years. Motor racing is dangerous. Anyone can be killed. But when the reigning Indy 500 champion loses his life in an accident not of his making, that truth is forced home stronger than ever.
In the aftermath of his death, Wheldon's friend and former team-mate Scott Dixon and his wife Emma moved to Dan's adopted home of St. Petersburg, Florida to support the Wheldon family. And the tributes poured in: the new IndyCar machine he had helped develop was named in his honour; there is now an annual charity go-kart event in Indianapolis each autumn to raise funds for his chosen cause, the Alzheimer's Society; and a street was named after him in St. Petersburg.
Four years on he is still mentioned regularly in IndyCar, as you would expect of a champion and fan favourite. Sadly, he was not the last man to lose his life in the series: earlier this year another British driver, Justin Wilson, died in a freak accident at the Pocono circuit in Pennsylvania. He too was a childhood rival of Wheldon and Button.
Wilson left behind two daughters, while Wheldon is survived by two sons, six-year-old Sebastian and four-year-old Oliver. The elder boy is already following in his father's footsteps and has taken up go-kart racing with success typical of his old man.
"He's got Dan's DNA," said four-time IndyCar champion Dixon earlier this year. "[Racing] is all Dan wanted to do."