Dan Wheldon knew the dangers of auto racing when he stepped into the cockpit of his IZOD IndyCar Sunday afternoon. The 33-year-old died at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after being involved in a fiery crash at Lap 11 that ultimately forced the cancellation of the race. Ironically, Wheldon was victorious the last time an IndyCar driver was killed in a race. More than five years ago, Paul Dana died at Homestead Speedway near Miami. Wheldon edged out the victory, and then had some prophetic and compassionate words in victory lane.
"Our thoughts are with the Dana family," Wheldon said after winning at Homestead in 2006. "It's a very, very sad day. I think we put on a good race ... but it's just a very sad day. It's a job that can be pretty vicious at times but also can have pretty big highs."
Wheldon knew the dangers, but it doesn’t make his death any easier. Please read the column I wrote for the Charleston Daily Mail after Dana’s death. It still rings true today.
By Mike Jones
March 27, 2006
Everyone involved in racing understands the dangers of the sport.
Drivers, crewmen and fans realize the inherent risks every time the cars motor around high-banked ovals at mind-boggling speeds for hundreds of miles.
Many legendary drivers who have built the sport have died behind the wheel.
Since 1996, 10 drivers from the IRL, CART and NASCAR's top three series have died from on-track crashes.
But the understood dangers don't make it any easier to accept when the racing community mourns the loss of a driver.
Paul Dana, a 30-year-old rookie driver in the IndyCar Series, was killed in a horrific crash during a morning practice just hours before Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Dana crashed into another car driven by Ed Carpenter, who spun out while in turn two. Most drivers slowed in time to miss the spinning car, but Dana, for reasons still unclear, was seemingly unaware of the caution and slammed into the back of Carpenter's car at nearly 200 mph.
Both Dana and Carpenter were airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital. Carpenter was awake and in stable condition Sunday. Dana, however, was pronounced dead two hours later.
In a somewhat surprising decision, the racing series decided to continue with the race just three hours after officials confirmed Dana's death. While car owner Bobby Rahal removed his other two cars driven by Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, the rest of the drivers prepared for business as usual.
Racing analysts agreed with the decision and said the drivers would be able to block out the tragedy once they strapped into their cars and fired the engines.
But should the show have moved on so quickly?
A man was dead and a family devastated. Dana's wife, Tonya, was informed of her husband's death while attending a church service in Indianapolis.
The high-speed excitement seemed inconsequential in light of the death of a person.
Before the race, ABC covered the tragedy and helped viewers understand the gravity of the situation. But the network barely mentioned Dana's death during the two-hour race.
Even in the face of tragedy, though, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves delivered a fantastic finish, racing within inches of each other, with Wheldon winning by the nose of his car.
While crewmen cheered and congratulated each other, Wheldon, the defending IRL champion, put the day's events into perspective.
"I think, under the circumstances, we shouldn't really celebrate," he told his crew moments after crossing the finish line.
In victory lane, a subdued Wheldon merely stepped out of his car, quietly embraced his team and then pushed aside questions about the incredible race.
"Our thoughts are with the Dana family," Wheldon said. "It's a very, very sad day. I think we put on a good race ... but it's just a very sad day.
"It's a job that can be pretty vicious at times but also can have pretty big highs."
Sunday's race had both. But the great side-by-side finish didn't seem at all important in light of the morning's tragedy.