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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 Dan Wheldon.

As part of a special challenge designed to help rekindle the popularity of the sport, Wheldon was competing for a $5m (¤3.6m) 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 Briton, 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.

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, 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."

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 (2) and Oliver, six months, new questions were raised over the safety of the sport.

Three-time Formula One world champion 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."

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.

Wheldon's father Clive thanked the public and the sport for its "overwhelming outpouring of sympathy".

He said: "Daniel was born to be a racer and left us doing what he loved to do. He was a true champion and a gentleman on and off the track."