Wheldon's death overshadows Franchitti's title
LAS VEGAS (AP)
Walking hand-in-hand with his wife, actress Ashley Judd, Dario Franchitti appeared to be in a daze, tears streaming down his face as he passed through the pit stalls at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Scotsman had just secured a place among IndyCar's all-time greats with his third straight series title and fourth overall, yet glory had taken a back seat to shock following the death of Dan Wheldon.
His title? That didn't even register until after he was asked about it following a five-lap tribute to Wheldon, who was killed when his car became entangled in a fiery 15-car wreck on the 11th lap of Sunday's Las Vegas Indy 300.
''I'm thinking about Susie and the boys,'' Franchitti said of Wheldon's wife and two small sons. ''When I think about them, I'm struggling to hold it together.''
Unable to avoid melee unfolding in front of him, Wheldon drove right into the spinning and flying cars. His No. 77 car went sailing over one of the other vehicles, did a mid-air roll and landed cockpit-first into a catch fence on turn 2.
Wheldon was airlifted to University Medical Center. Nearly two hours later, IndyCar officials announced he had died.
IndyCar decided the cancel the race and instead drivers, tears streaming down their faces, did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon.
As they prepared to return to the track many drivers broke down.
Tony Kanaan, a close friend of Wheldon's, wept almost uncontrollably and had to be comforted by owner and former driver Jimmy Vasser. Franchitti and Danica Patrick, among others, were seen crying in their cars before leaving the pits.
After driving around the track three-wide during the tribute, the drivers pulled into their pits and shared hugs with crew members and family.
Franchitti's face was covered in tears as he took his helmet off and shared a long hug with Judd. They walked down pit road, stopping to hug members of other teams before heading up to the media center with owner Chip Ganassi.
''It's sad. It's really, really sad,'' Franchitti said. ''It's just the ugly side of our sport.''
The days following Wheldon's death, naturally, have been filled with questions: are the speeds too high at LVMS, should that many cars be allowed on the track at the same time, what changes should be made to make the sport safer and should the sport return to LVMS?
Sam Schmidt, who runs the team for which Wheldon ran his final two races, wasn't so quick to point fingers at LVMS, which had been repaved and reconfigured in 2006 to add ''progressive banking'' designed to increase side-by-side racing.
A Las Vegas resident who pushed hard to get the race, Schmidt said Wheldon's death was an unfortunate accident that could have happened almost anywhere.
''There's obviously been a lot of changes to the track since we were here last time, and I don't think I can criticize the track,'' he said. ''It's similar to what we do at Texas - with a little more speed a few more cars - but I don't think the track's to blame.''
Still, there are questions about whether IndyCar will ever return to Las Vegas.
Not only will it forever carry a stigma as the place where Wheldon died, it's where IndyCar's grand plans for a spectacular season finale were destroyed with the fiery crash that also injured three other drivers.
The series took a gamble to move its season-ending race to Las Vegas, essentially renting the track from owner Bruton Smith and forking over its own money to run the race.
Instead of a triumphant finale, the series and its drivers were left with nothing but shock and grief.
The week got off to a rousing start with a trip down The Strip by all 34 cars and a tight race for the championship between Franchitti and Will Power.
Franchitti entered the race 18 points ahead of Power, whom he had passed on the final race last season for his third title. When Power was caught up in the wreck that killed Wheldon and Franchitti avoided it, the title went to the Scotsman, putting him in elite company.
Franchitti became just the third driver to claim three straight season championships, with Sebastien Bourdais (2004-07) and Ted Horn (1946-48). And he joined A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Bourdais with four in their careers.
It's an accomplishment Franchitti will never celebrate after losing a friend and former teammate.
''We put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and that's what we love to do, what we live for,'' Franchitti said Sunday after Wheldon's death. ''Days like today, it doesn't really matter.''