Wheldon's death in IRL finale touches local racing community

Monday, October 17, 2011 at 4:33pm

The death of Dan Wheldon in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday jolted racing acquaintances in the Nashville area, some of whom think the accident might have avoidable.

“These things are always unexpected,” said Franklin’s Darrell Waltrip, a retired three-time NASCAR champion and current FoxSports racing commentator. “We go for a while without a fatality and we think we’ve got it all figured out. We get complacent. We forget just how dangerous this sport is. Then suddenly we get a huge wakeup call like Sunday’s, and we have to start all over again.”

Wheldon, a 33-year-old native of Emberton, England, was caught up in a 15-car crash on lap 11 of the IndyCar Series season finale. The car of the defending Indy 500 champion went airborne and crashed into a retaining fence. Officials have yet to determine if Wheldon died on impact. Three other drivers were slightly injured.

“I wasn’t watching the race when the crash occurred, but when I saw the replay I knew it was bad,” said Gary Baker who has spent four decades in racing as a driver, track owner and team owner. “I couldn’t watch it a second time. Those cars have open cockpits and there’s no protection when they crash like that.”

Baker questioned whether the fast, lightweight open-wheelers should have been racing on a NASCAR-designed track.

“Las Vegas Speedway is a great stock car track but it’s too dangerous for IndyCars,” he said. “Those cars are designed for flat tracks and road courses, not for banked tracks built for NASCAR racing. When those open wheels come into contact, you’re lost. Danger is part of the sport but there are steps that can be taken to keep it to a minimum.”

Waltrip agreed that the IndyCar Series might need to re-think racing on NASCAR-type tracks.

“I hate to second-guess,” he said, “but I know those guys were apprehensive going onto that race. The speeds were too high. There was some fear.”

Waltrip compared the situation to Fairgrounds Speedway in the 1960’s when the track was banked 35 degrees. The steep banks produced blazing speeds that Waltrip and other drivers considered too fast for safety.

“They eventually ground down the banking — after a driver got killed,” Waltrip said. “Unfortunately in our sport that’s often what it takes to get safety innovations done.”

The remainder of Sunday’s race was canceled after the crash and Williamson County resident Dario Franchitti was awarded his fourth IndyCar championship. But there was no celebration as Franchitti fought back tears while being consoled by wife Ashley Judd.

“One minute you’re joking around during driver intros and the next minute Dan’s gone,” Franchitti told the Associated Press.

Scott Borchetta, a Nashville music producer and retired racer who remains active in the sport as a sponsor, issued a statement:

“Dan Wheldon was a dear friend and an incredible race driver. His family and friends were with him at the track and he was surrounded by love. He was doing what all true racers love best. There is a massive hole in my heart but I am blessed to have shared in his life, his family and friends and his mighty racing accomplishments.”

Cliff Hawks, vice president/general manager of Nashville Superspeedway, became acquainted with Wheldon during the IndyCar Series’ races at his track.

“What impressed me about Dan was how well-liked and well-respected he seemed to be by his fellow drivers,” Hawks said. “Those two traits don’t always go together, but in Dan’s case they did. Everybody seemed to genuinely like him.”

Hawks said Wheldon “was very accessible to fans, the media and to all of us at the track. He was always accommodating, willing to do whatever we asked of him to help promote the races. He was a very personable, likeable guy. I was sad to hear about what happened.”