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Auto racing: Stunned drivers remember Wheldon

17 october 2011, 15:15
IndyCar drivers stunned by the death of Dan Wheldon on Sunday recalled the English driver with fondness and tried to puzzle out the circumstances that led to the massive crash that killed him, AFP reports.

"One minute, you're joking around during driver intros," Dario Franchitti said, "and the next, Dan's gone."

Scotland's Franchitti won the season title by default when the race was cancelled. But that was the last thing on his mind as he and fellow drivers somberly toured the course in a five-lap tribute to their fallen colleague.

Wheldon, a 33-year-old two-time winner of the fabled Indianapolis 500, died of injuries received when his car soared into the air and hit the catch fencing in the midst of a fiery 15-car crash on the 12th lap of the season-ending race at Las Vegas.

The packed field of 35 cars and the high speeds achieved on the 1.5-mile oval had sparked driver concerns even before the race, and Brazilian Tony Kanaan said he was shocked that so many fellow drivers were so impatient so early in the race.

"One mistake can take 15 people out, and that's what happened there," Kanaan said. "I've never seen such a mess in my entire career."

Wheldon's car was one of several that went airborne. Others erupted in flame, leaving a trail of smoldering debris on the track.

Wheldon was airlifted to hospital, but two hours after the race was stopped his fellow drivers learned the married father of two small sons had died.

He was the first IndyCar driver to die of on-track injuries since Paul Dana was killed in a pre-race practice crash in Florida in 2006.

"This is incredibly sad," Spanish driver Oriol Servia said. "We all know this is part of the sport.

"Cars are getting safer, tracks are getting safer, so fortunately it hasn't happened in a long time.

"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," Servia added. "We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."

Sam Schmidt, the owner of the car Wheldon was driving in a bid to claim a $5 million bonus on offer to a non-regular on the IndyCar circuit for a victory here, was left a quadriplegic himself after crashing during Indy testing in 2000.

"Dan Wheldon was a tremendous competitor and great racer and an even better person," Schmidt said. "It was an honor to have him be a part of our team."

Franchitti was trying to remember good times he shared with Wheldon, but he admitted he was finding it tough going.

"I was thinking about old Dan stories and things that we did," Franchitti said. "I was thinking about some of the fun times we had. But really, right now it's just sad. It's just really, really sad.

"It's the ugly side of our sport."

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