Grieving drivers and racing officials turned their attention Monday to how and why Dan Wheldon died in a horrific, fiery pileup Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Specifically, the focus was on drivers’ earlier concerns about excessively high speeds in a crowded field on a steeply-banked track and Wheldon’s own comments in a USA Today blog about frustrations with his car.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ryan Briscoe said of the crash that stunned even veteran drivers and racing fans. “The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from ‘Terminator’ or something. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere. So it was scary, and your first thoughts are hoping that no one is hurt because there’s just stuff everywhere. Crazy.”
The pileup was so massive and the smoke so thick that the chain of events wasn’t entirely clear, but the reaction seemed to start when Wade Cunningham swerved and J.R.Hildebrand drove over the left rear portion of Cunningham’s car. Hildebrand’s car flew into the air and Cunningham hit the wall, with trailing cars slowing down and piling up. As Paul Tracy was slowing down, Wheldon appeared to drive over his car, went airborne and struck the fence at the worst possible angle.
“One minute you’re joking around at driver intros and the next, Dan’s gone,” said Dario Franchitti, a long-time friend of Wheldon’s. “I lost, we lost, a good friend. Everybody in the IndyCar series considered him a friend. He was such a good guy. He was a charmer.”
In his blog, Wheldon had said Saturday that his crew was seeking to find speed that had been missing for a while. “It is incredibly frustrating, both for me and them,” he said. “All the boys are working as hard as possible, but so far we haven't pinpointed what it is. Part of the reason it's so frustrating is because we'd created so much momentum around Indy.”
Speeds during practice for the 200-lap race were close to 225 mph and there were concerns about overly aggressive moves. “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,” Oriol Servia said. “And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that’s what we do. We knew it could happen, but it’s just really sad.”
Chip Ganassi, Wheldon’s former boss, wasn’t ready to think about that Sunday. “There’ll be plenty of time in the offseason to talk about that. Now is not the time to talk about that.” Franchitti agreed, although, he expressed concerns.
“Within five laps people started to do crazy stuff,” he said (via ESPN) just after the accident occurred.”I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it's about.
“I said before this is not a suitable track. You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and you have a massive wreck.”
Will Power, J.R. Hildebrand and Pippa Mann were also taken to the hospital; Power was released Sunday night. Hildebrand was alert, but was held overnight for observation. Mann had a burn on her pinkie finger and was expected to be released this morning.
Rescue workers reached Wheldon’s car quickly and he was airlifted to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His wife, Susie, his sons and brother and sister were at the hospital.
“What can you say? We’re going to miss him,” Ganassi said. “Everybody in IndyCar died a little today.”
Video: Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan on Wheldon’s death
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