Did the pursuit of a $5m bonus drive IndyCar racer Dan Wheldon to his death?

Jonathan Brown reports on the soul-searching caused by the death of a British sporting hero

It was the final day of the IndyCar racing season, and while the serious action was being played out between title contenders Dario Franchitti and Will Power, all eyes at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway were on the car belonging to British driver Dan Wheldon.

As part of a special challenge designed to help rekindle the popularity of the sport, Wheldon was competing for a $5m (£3.2m) prize which he would share with a randomly selected fan. To win it, all he had to do was start from last place on the grid and overtake all 34 cars ahead of him.

It was a heady end-of-term atmosphere but one tinged with fear, drivers later admitted. For the 33-year-old former private schoolboy, whose film-star good looks and affable demeanour made him a hero with US race-goers since arriving in the country in 1999 to try his luck on the notoriously perilous IndyCar circuits, it was to end in fiery tragedy.

That the prize was playing on his mind was evident in Wheldon's final tweets as the race drew near. "Big day today, $5,000,000 at stake!!! Heading to the track," he wrote just hours before the lights went green. But on the 12th lap of the 300-mile race, Wheldon's car was sent hurtling skywards before exploding in flames after a horrific 15-vehicle pile up.

Last night, as tributes were paid to the father of two who lived in St Petersburg on Florida's Gulf Coast with his wife Susie and two boys, Sebastian, two, and Oliver, six months, new questions were raised over the safety of the sport.

Three-time Formula One world champion Sir Jackie Stewart said he believed too many powerful cars travelled too fast on too small a track. "Do we have to do 230, 240 miles per hour? If all the cars were travelling at the same speeds, if you could knock off 30 or 40mph from that speed [and] no one would notice," he said.

Former IndyCar driver Mark Blundell described the tragedy as "inevitable", adding "these kinds of cars shouldn't be running on these kinds of circuits". "It was a recipe for disaster when you look at what was going on. We are in Las Vegas for the last race of the championship and I really do think the dice were rolled on the track." Meanwhile Derek Warwick, president of the British Racing Drivers' Club, said that while he did not think the $5m prize had been a contributing factor he believed the sheer size of the field meant the risks were high. "There were 34 drivers [who] started that race. I don't think you had 34 of the best drivers in the world. Some are less experienced than others. There is more room for error," he said.

Another former Formula One world champion, Jody Scheckter, who was watching his son Tomas compete in the race, said he had been advising him to quit for some time and described IndyCar as the most dangerous of all motor sports.

"Hopefully this will knock some sense into [Tomas] and [he will] realise there is more to life. It really isn't worth it," he said.

Wheldon's father Clive, speaking outside the family home in Emberton, Buckinghamshire, thanked the public and the sport for its "overwhelming outpouring of sympathy". He said: "Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do. He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."

Lewis Hamilton said that Wheldon, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, had been an "inspiration". "Dan was a racer I'd followed throughout my career as we climbed the motorsport ladder in the UK," he said. "As a British guy, who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration."

Wheldon began his driving career aged just four. He was a successful karter, winning eight British titles competing alongside Hamilton's McLaren teammate Jenson Button. Like other British drivers struggling to get the financial support for a place in Formula One, he crossed the Atlantic. He survived a spectacular crash at the Indianapolis 500 in 2003 but two years later won the event – the first Briton to do so since Graham Hill in 1966. Wheldon won the Indy500 again this year having turned down the opportunity to make a name for himself in Formula One with BMW, and had just signed a new contract to drive in IndyCar next season.

News of his death from "unsurvivable" head injuries was tearfully confirmed two hours after the crash by IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard. It is the fourth fatality to hit the series since 1996. Although many current drivers insisted death is an occupational hazard in a profession where cars hit speeds of 220mph while racing just inches apart on steeply banked oval tracks, others admitted they had misgivings before the race. Mexico's Adrian Fernandez said: "I was with Dan Wheldon ... in his trailer before the start and many others on the grid and none felt comfortable – I could feel their fear." Fellow driver Alex Tagliani added: "I am angry, I am sad. I felt that everything was wrong."

IndyCar drivers including fellow Briton and eventual championship winner Dario Franchitti completed an emotional five-lap tribute to Wheldon after the race was abandoned. Three other drivers – including another Briton, Pippa Mann – were taken to hospital after being caught up in the crash but none suffered serious injuries. Wheldon's car struck the outside wall of the oval track following an earlier collision. He was airlifted to hospital and died with his family beside him.

Despite the grief, the Gold Coast 600 race at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in which Wheldon was due to compete this weekend will go ahead, organisers said.

British IndyCar stars

Nigel Mansell

After being crowned F1 world champion in 1992, Mansell fell out with his team, spent a year in IndyCar racing and promptly won the championship there, too.

Dario Franchitti

The Scottish former junior go-karting ace is the three-time and reigning IndyCar champion and the older cousin of F1 driver Paul di Resta.

Pippa Mann

The 28-year-old from London made her IndyCar Series debut this year. Her car was one of 15 involved in Sunday's crash, during which she suffered burns to her hand.

Mike Conway

The Formula Three champion recently returned to IndyCar after breaking his leg in a high-speed crash at the Indianapolis 500 race last year.

Charlie Cooper

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