Between preparing the car and turning practice laps for this weekend’s Nationwide race, Danica Patrick didn’t have a lot of time to think about the last time she was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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But as she made her way from the garage to the media center, Patrick’s thoughts caught up with her.
Seeing the setup of the garage, her pit stall from last year, the neon sign above garage, it all took her back to the final race of her IndyCar career – the day Dan Wheldon died.
”When you have time to think about multiple things, that’s when it hits you,” a somber Patrick said Friday.
Major racing returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend for the first time since Wheldon was killed in a fiery crash last fall.
Speedway officials don’t plan any memorials or tributes to the two-time Indy 500 champion and neither does NASCAR.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya will have decals on their cars – Wheldon drove three years for Chip Ganassi Racing – and some fans are planning to tweet Wheldon’s No. 77 on the 77th lap of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races, but that’s about it for tributes.
Still, Wheldon’s death likely will loom over everything that happens this weekend, from the time the drivers go through the tunnel just below where Wheldon died to the time the haulers take the cars to the next race.
”You try to push it out of your mind, you try not to think about it,” said Jimmie Johnson, who knew Wheldon. ”It’s easier for us as stock-car drivers to come back to this track, but certainly we know what happened and it tugs on us emotionally.”
That isn’t the case for Patrick.
On her way to NASCAR full-time, she went into Las Vegas last fall hoping to do something special in her final race as a full-time IndyCar driver.
The series was hoping to make a splash, too, that a season finale in Las Vegas would be a showcase for the sport. The series put up its own money to promote the event, renting the track from owner Bruton Smith, and took over a section of The Strip so its cars could do a few hot laps under the neon lights.
There also was the added specter of Wheldon taking home a $5 million prize as part of a promotion if he could win the Oct. 16 race.
Instead, it ended in disaster.
Twelve laps into the race, Wheldon came roaring up to a 15-car pileup in progress and had nowhere to go. Wheldon’s car became entangled in the careening cars and went airborne, sailing into a catch fence around turn 2. The reigning Indy 500 champion died from head injuries after his car hit a post on the fence cockpit-first.
IndyCar halted the race and the remaining drivers did a five-lap tribute to Wheldon, many with tears streaming down their faces.
Patrick was among them, leaving IndyCar not in triumph, but devastation after watching a friend die in a crash that unfolded right in front of her.
Returning five months later, even in a different kind of car, has been a heart-wrenching experience. Patrick said she made it through Friday’s practice session without thinking too much about Wheldon, but it was hard to completely shake his memory, even at 175 mph.
”Obviously, the last time we were here, it was a big weekend, a sad weekend and thoughts are still with Susie (Dan’s wife) and the kids,” Patrick said. ”There won’t be a time when I come to Las Vegas and won’t think about Dan and think about the family.”
The wreck raised questions about whether IndyCar should race at the high-banked oval at LVMS, where speeds reached 225 mph in practice before last fall’s race. IndyCar opted not to return to Las Vegas and the wreck led to the addition of numerous safety measures at tracks and the redesigned car that will debut this season.
NASCAR doesn’t have some the same concerns, even after the banking was increased from 12 to 20 degrees in 2007.
The cars don’t run nearly as fast at LVMS – Johnson hit 188 mph in Friday’s practice session – making them a better fit for the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars fully encase the drivers and are less likely to go airborne than IndyCars, though that series has added pods around the wheels on the new car to prevent the wheel-to-wheel contact that sometimes launches the cars into the air.
Even with all those safety measures, racing at a track where someone recently died does make them stop and think about the dangers a little more.
”I wouldn’t say our cars are perfectly safe, but certainly they do give you a false sense (of security) sometimes,” said Kyle Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. ”But anything can happen. Whether you’re walking across the street, playing out in the sand dunes or racing around a race track, there’s something that can happen around every turn.”
The drivers understand the risks involved in their sport, and realize the next time they climb into the car could be their last. The key is putting it to the back of their minds so it doesn’t affect their aggressiveness on the track.
Staying away from those thoughts is harder now because of what happened to Wheldon, a friend to many NASCAR drivers.
”It was devastating; I thought about it driving through the tunnel last night coming here,” Greg Biffle said. ”We all think about it because what we do is a dangerous sport. That’s an underlying factor that we know can happen with what we do, so you try to be the best prepared you can be when you go into all these races and anytime you get in the car.”