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

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone