LAS VEGAS -- Race car drivers always know the worst can happen whenever they get behind the wheel. On Sunday, it happened to one of IndyCar's biggest and most popular stars.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died after his car became ensnared in a fiery 15-car pileup, flew over another vehicle and hit the catch fence just outside turn 2 in a season-ending race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"Things happen in this kind of racing," said Wade Cunningham, also caught up in the wreck. "It's so close. Not much room for error. I was near the front of what caused all this, so I'm not thrilled about it. At this point, whose fault it was is kind of immaterial."
The green flag had barely stopped waving when disaster struck.
Wheldon, driving from the back of the field for a chance at US$5 million, was in the middle of the pack when he drove into a tangle of cars careening off each other in every direction.
Unable to avoid the massive wreck unfolding before him, Wheldon clipped another car and went hurtling through the air, his car bursting into flames as it flew into a fence.
After just 11 laps, the race was over. Two hours later, track officials announced Wheldon was dead. He was 33.
With the speed -- close to 365 kilometres per hour during practice -- and a crowded 34-car field, a big worry was aggressive driving early in the 200-lap race.
Chaos started when two cars touched tires and almost no one had time to react. Within seconds, several cars burst into flames and debris covered the track nearly halfway up the straightaway. Some points of impact were so devastating workers had to patch holes in the asphalt.
"When we came around after the caution (flag) was thrown, I can't even describe to you what the scene looked like on the race track from our point of view," rookie driver James Hinchcliffe of Toronto told ABC. "It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before in my life."
Video replays showed Wheldon's car turning over as it went airborne and sailed into what's called the catch fence, which sits over a barrier designed to give a bit when cars make contact. Rescue workers were at Wheldon's car quickly, some furiously waving for more help to get to the scene.
"It's unfortunate that early on in the race they've got to be racing so close," Team Penske owner Roger Penske said. "You always worry about those at these mile-and-a-halves at the speed and with this many cars."
Three other drivers, including championship contender Will Power, were hurt in the pileup.
Wheldon was airlifted from the track to University Medical Center; news of his death came from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard:
"IndyCar is very sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injuries," he said.
In his honour, drivers, many sobbing openly, took part in a five-lap salute around the oval as thousands of fans stood and cheered from the grandstand.
-- The Associated Press