Driving in to Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a strange and sad experience on Friday morning.
I hadn't thought about Dan Wheldon's tragic crash on the drive from the hotel up I-15 toward the track, but as I pulled off the Speedway Blvd. exit and saw the grandstands, it suddenly hit me.
Butterflies filled my stomach, and I felt a sense of dread as I approached the infield tunnel that passes almost directly under the spot where Wheldon flew through the air in October's IndyCar Series finale and made a sickeningly hard contact with the fence, killing him instantly.
I wasn't there that day, but I had watched the TV coverage intently and was very affected by it all. The first race I ever paid attention to was in 2004, so the era of frequent driver deaths had far preceded me and I wasn't used to that type of scene.
We all saw the replay over and over. We saw the worry and fear for Wheldon's life on the faces of drivers and fans alike. We saw the drivers file somberly out of the infield media center's first floor meeting room after being told of Wheldon's death. We saw IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's official announcement that Wheldon had died, made from a stage not 30 feet from me right now. We saw the heartbreak and devastation of those at the track once the news was public, and we saw the IndyCar drivers pay tribute to their fallen comrade by driving in a series of parade laps.
As time has gone on, I've mostly pushed those images out of my head. How can you be around racing and think about that possibility all the time? I image many race fans feel the same way about watching it.
But here at Las Vegas, all the memories are back. They're still fresh, too. And so while we should feel free to enjoy NASCAR's visit to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, we should also remember Wheldon's family and friends who must go through life with a hole that can never be filled.