Dan Wheldon's Death Brings Unwanted Reminder About Dangers Of Racing

As the minutes dragged by with no word of Dan Wheldon's condition, the faint hope he had somehow survived Sunday's terrifying IndyCar Series wreck at Las Vegas seemed less and less realistic.

ABC's television cameras showed a shot of Danica Patrick crying. The drivers quietly shuffled into a meeting room at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then emerged with solemn faces and tears in their eyes. Tony Kanaan sat on the pit wall and broke down.

At home, viewers watched with a sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs that only grew deeper. After the worst crash many fans had ever seen, it didn't seem likely Wheldon would be OK.

But some of us still held out hope. After all, there had been so many times in the last 10 years – both in IndyCar and NASCAR – when drivers walked away unscathed from horrifying crashes. And so maybe, just maybe, Wheldon was going to pull through.

He was gone, though. With a deep breath, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard announced Wheldon's death from "unsurvivable injuries" shortly after 3 p.m. local time on Sunday.

The motorsports community was helpless and heartsick over what was taking place before their eyes. No! Not Dan Wheldon! This couldn't be happening. The 33-year-old had been the feel-good story of the season just five months ago, winning the Indianapolis 500 in a major surprise.

And now he was dead, leaving a wife and two young sons behind.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not for Wheldon, and not for IndyCar.

All season long, the Las Vegas finale had been one of the primary focuses of Bernard's new IndyCar agenda. He initially offered a $5 million prize for any non-IndyCar driver to win the race, but settled on Wheldon after the England native spent the season unemployed (and no other takers could be found).

Sunday was to be a joyous 2011 finale for the series. Not only was the championship on the line, but Wheldon would start in the back of the field and be challenged to get to the front before the checkered flag waved.

In addition, there was word he had a ride lined up for next season. The cheery, affable Wheldon had even more of a reason to smile than usual.

But by now, you know what happened next. Wheldon drove into a wreck that had already begun to happen in front of him, and his car went airborne. It twisted at a sickening angle toward the catch fence and slammed into it, bursting into flames.

The driver was extracted and airlifted to a local hospital, but his injuries were too significant to overcome.

Though the wreck was as bad as it looked, it was still stunning to actually learn Wheldon was gone. Some of us in racing have developed an "Ah, he'll be fine!" attitude whenever we see a crash these days – particularly those of us who have only started following motorsports in the last 10 years.

NASCAR has not seen any fatalities since Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 wreck in 2001; the inexperienced Paul Dana was the last IndyCar Series driver to suffer a fatal crash before Wheldon, that coming in 2006.

If Michael McDowell can survive his NASCAR crash at Texas and if IndyCar drivers can walk away from wrecks that leave their car scattered all over the track – the biggest driver injuries typically seem to be bruises and soreness – we tend to view accidents without much fear.

HANS devices, SAFER barriers, sturdier builds and more secure cockpits. It's all lulled us into a false sense of security.

While racing may be "safer," it will never be "safe." All too often, we only pay lip service to the dangers of the sport: Yeah, something bad could happen, but it probably won't.

On Sunday, though, it did happen. Dan Wheldon, one of the sport's great champions, is gone.

We all could have done without the reminder.

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