Column: Death intrudes on Las Vegas track
The sound of bagpipes came out of Turn 1, playing a mournful
refrain of ”Amazing Grace” for the driver who would not
On the track, the cars that could still run moved slowly in a
five-lap tribute that was as heartfelt as it was inadequate.
One of their own was dead, something even those who risk death
in every race found hard to comprehend. What was supposed to be a
day of celebration for Dan Wheldon instead turned out to be his
last day alive.
They exited their cars quickly, some fighting to hold back
tears. Around them on pit row, workers somberly went about the task
of tearing down equipment and packing it up for the long trip
That it all happened so quickly made it seem even more
”One minute you’re joking around during driver’s intros,”
Dario Franchitti said, ”and the next Dan’s gone.”
Franchitti won the season title by default, but this was a win
that could never be celebrated. Not after losing a friend in a race
that he and other drivers were nervous about even before the green
Thirty-four cars crammed together early in the race on a
1.5-mile track with no way to get around each other turned into a
recipe for disaster.
”I said before we tested here, having driven a stock car here,
this is not a suitable track,” Franchitti said. ”You’re just
stuck there and people get frustrated and go four wide and you saw
what happened. One small mistake from everybody and it’s a massive
The drivers knew the danger, just as they know it every time
they strap themselves into an open-air cockpit and go 220 mph
around an oval track. Sam Schmidt, the owner of Wheldon’s car, was
left a quadriplegic himself after crashing during IndyCar testing
But it’s what they do, and it had been five years since Paul
Dana was killed during a crash at Homestead that a driver had lost
his life. Though wary of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they came on
a warm Sunday afternoon to finish off what seemed to be a comeback
season for the IndyCar Series.
It ended just 11 laps into the race in a string of fireballs and
flying cars that littered the track with debris on Turn 2. Fifteen
cars were smashed up, but Wheldon’s took the worst, flying over
another car and landing in a catch fence.
He was airlifted to a hospital and, two hours later, his fellow
drivers were told he died there.
”This is incredibly sad,” fellow driver Oriol Servia said.
”We all know this is part of the sport. Cars are getting safer,
tracks are getting safer, so fortunately it hasn’t happened in a
long time. We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular
just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat. We
knew it could happen, but it’s just really sad.”
Wheldon had started in last place for his last race, as part of
a promotion in which he and a fan would split $5 million if he
could pass the rest of the field and win. The two-time Indy 500
winner had raced only twice since his surprise win at Indy in May.
Earlier in the week, he said he was desperate to be in one again
after spending the intervening months as a television color
commentator and a test driver for the 2012 Indy car prototype.
The $5 million bonus was part of a marketing plan by IndyCar
officials to boost interest in the final race of the year, but only
about 25,000 people bothered to show up at a race track that holds
five times that to watch what would also be Danica Patrick’s last
race as an IndyCar Series regular.
Patrick was among those who viewed the race with trepidation
because the speeds were so high and the track so short that it made
it almost impossible to get around other cars.
”I was really nervous coming into today,” Patrick said,
”because I knew that you as a driver were going to be put into
positions where you were either going to decide to be flat-out and
possibly be a part of something like that or look like a wimp and
lift (off the accelerator). But you know what? I lifted a
As Patrick and the others finished their tribute laps, the
bagpipes had stopped and most of the fans were gone. People walked
somberly along the row of garages as cars were lifted into
There were embraces and remembrances of a driver lost too
”I was thinking about old Dan stories and things that we did,”
Franchitti said. ”I was thinking about some of the fun times we
had. But really, right now it’s just sad. It’s just really, really
”It’s the ugly side of our sport.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or