Wheldon tributes pour in

2011-10-18 11:12

London - Struggling to hold back tears, Clive Wheldon's voice quivered as he spoke about the tragic death of his son in a fiery IndyCar crash.

VIDEO: Drivers react to Dan Wheldon's death

"Daniel was born to be a racer and yesterday left us doing what he loved to do," he told reporters on Monday outside the family home in the sleepy English village of Emberton, a far cry from the high-powered world of auto racing in which his son became one of Britain's most famous sporting exports.

News of Dan Wheldon's death, at the age of 33, following a massive crash in the Las Vegas Indy 300 dominated newspaper headlines and newscasts in Britain on Monday.

Sadly, it took the dramatic nature of his death to finally earn Wheldon some notoriety in his home country.

Two victories in the Indianapolis 500 - one of the United States' iconic sporting events - catapulted him into superstar status in America and established him as one of the few Britons to master his sport across the Atlantic.

But Wheldon was far from a household name in Britain, where Formula One is the top motor sport and IndyCar receives little coverage or recognition.

Wheldon's loss was most keenly felt on Monday among the motor-sport fraternity, which has long recognised his talent starting from his youth as a kart driver, and in Emberton, a village in Buckinghamshire - a county just north of London - where he grew up and where his parents Clive and Sue still live.

"The family would like to thank everyone for their overwhelming outpouring of sympathy," said Clive, reading slowly from a prepared statement and flanked by sons Austin and Ashley. "He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."

A floral tribute was placed in the heart of the village.

"R.I.P. Dan. You'll be missed champ," read one of the messages.

"I follow motor racing and it was a terrible shock when I put the television on this morning and saw what had happened," retired Emberton resident Sylvia Croxen said. "From what I know, he was very well liked."

A winner of eight British karting titles after taking up the pursuit as a 4-year-old, Wheldon left Emberton for the U.S. in 1999 after failing to secure financial backing for his career in Europe.

Quickly embracing the American lifestyle, he soon got his chance in the IndyCar series. Titles and fame soon followed.

In 2005, he became the first English driver since Graham Hill 39 years earlier to win the Indy 500, helping him capture the overall IndyCar Championship that year. He went on to win the Indy 500 again this year after taking the lead for the first time with only seconds remaining.

"He was an extremely talented driver," said British driver Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 Formula One champion. "As a British guy who not only went over to the 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."

Beyond the U.S., though, there was precious little coverage of Wheldon's exploits on the track.

Even in Emberton, residents knew of him as simply a successful racing driver rather than a longtime star of the IndyCar circuit.

"We all knew he was a good racing driver ... but he moved to America a few years and we didn't see much of him after that," said George Cheney, a 73-year-old resident who has lived in Emberton for 10 years.

Wheldon was much better known in racing circles.

"Two victories in the Indy 500 put him in a very select group of drivers," British Racing Drivers' Club president Derek Warwick said. "Dan was a true professional and a great ambassador for the sport. He was highly focused in the way he approached his racing and a real perfectionist.

"With his film-star good looks and athletic prowess, it was no wonder that the American public took him to their hearts."

Jenson Button, Hamilton's team-mate at McLaren, was one of Wheldon's rivals in junior karting in the 1990s, describing him as a "true fighter."

"We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy," Button said on Twitter.

Wheldon had been scheduled to compete next weekend in the Gold Coast 600 at Surfers Paradise, Australia, teaming with V8 Supercar champion James Courtney as a co-driver for the two 300-kilometer touring car races.

Two IndyCar drivers have pulled out of the event - Australian Will Power, who suffered back injuries in Sunday's crash in Las Vegas, and Tony Kanaan of Brazil.

"Tony was probably Dan's closest friend in the racing fraternity and we fully support his decision," V8 series chairperson Tony Cochrane said.

Cochrane said Ryan Briscoe of Australia, Alex Tagliani of Canada and Helio Castroneves of Brazil will still be driving in the race.

"We want to run a great event on the weekend as a true testament to a true champion in Dan Wheldon," he said.

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said Monday that Wheldon's death was caused by injuries sustained to the head.

Wheldon was pronounced dead at 13:54 on Sunday at University Medical Centre in Las Vegas, where he was flown by medical helicopter after the crash at the track about 19 kilometres away.

After an autopsy, Murphy ruled the death an accident, the result of blunt trauma to the head due to a motor vehicle collision, and offered condolences to friends and family of the married father of two from England.

"We'll be working with family and Indy Car officials and the attending physicians to fully review the case in an effort to improve safety for drivers," he said.

Three other drivers were injured in the fiery crash on lap 11, none seriously.

Pippa Mann, 28, had surgery on a burned right pinkie finger and was released on Monday, as was 23-year-old JR Hildebrand, who had a bruised sternum. Will Power, 30, was evaluated and released on Sunday.

The race was called off after Wheldon's death was announced, although drivers drove a five-lap salute to their colleague.