Posted: Monday October 17, 2011 5:24 AM

Column: Death intrudes on Las Vegas track

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LAS VEGAS (AP) - The sound of bagpipes came out of Turn 1, playing a mournful refrain of "Amazing Grace'' for the driver who would not return.

On the track, the cars that could still run moved slowly in a five-lap tribute that was as heartfelt as it was inadequate.

One of their own was dead, something even those who risk death in every race found hard to comprehend. What was supposed to be a day of celebration for Dan Wheldon instead turned out to be his last day alive.

They exited their cars quickly, some fighting to hold back tears. Around them on pit row, workers somberly went about the task of tearing down equipment and packing it up for the long trip home.

That it all happened so quickly made it seem even more surreal.

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

Franchitti won the season title by default, but this was a win that could never be celebrated. Not after losing a friend in a race that he and other drivers were nervous about even before the green flag dropped.

Thirty-four cars crammed together early in the race on a 1.5-mile track with no way to get around each other turned into a recipe for disaster.

"I said before we tested here, having driven a stock car here, this is not a suitable track,'' Franchitti said. "You're just stuck there and people get frustrated and go four wide and you saw what happened. One small mistake from everybody and it's a massive thing.''

The drivers knew the danger, just as they know it every time they strap themselves into an open-air cockpit and go 220 mph around an oval track. Sam Schmidt, the owner of Wheldon's car, was left a quadriplegic himself after crashing during IndyCar testing in 2000.

But it's what they do, and it had been five years since Paul Dana was killed during a crash at Homestead that a driver had lost his life. Though wary of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they came on a warm Sunday afternoon to finish off what seemed to be a comeback season for the IndyCar Series.

It ended just 11 laps into the race in a string of fireballs and flying cars that littered the track with debris on Turn 2. Fifteen cars were smashed up, but Wheldon's took the worst, flying over another car and landing in a catch fence.

He was airlifted to a hospital and, two hours later, his fellow drivers were told he died there.

"This is incredibly sad,'' fellow 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. We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad.''

Wheldon had started in last place for his last race, as part of a promotion in which he and a fan would split $5 million if he could pass the rest of the field and win. The two-time Indy 500 winner had raced only twice since his surprise win at Indy in May. Earlier in the week, he said he was desperate to be in one again after spending the intervening months as a television color commentator and a test driver for the 2012 Indy car prototype.

The $5 million bonus was part of a marketing plan by IndyCar officials to boost interest in the final race of the year, but only about 25,000 people bothered to show up at a race track that holds five times that to watch what would also be Danica Patrick's last race as an IndyCar Series regular.

Patrick was among those who viewed the race with trepidation because the speeds were so high and the track so short that it made it almost impossible to get around other cars.

"I was really nervous coming into today,'' Patrick said, "because I knew that you as a driver were going to be put into positions where you were either going to decide to be flat-out and possibly be a part of something like that or look like a wimp and lift (off the accelerator). But you know what? I lifted a little.''

As Patrick and the others finished their tribute laps, the bagpipes had stopped and most of the fans were gone. People walked somberly along the row of garages as cars were lifted into trailers.

There were embraces and remembrances of a driver lost too soon.

"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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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

 
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