Racing tragedy: Indy 500 champ killed at Las Vegas Speedway

Racecar drivers and fans are drawn to the dangers and risks of the sport, which pushes human and mechanical performance to almost incomprehensible limits.

On very rare occasions, those dangers and risks explode from the background with tragic consequences.

Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, racing champion Dan Wheldon was killed in a frightening 15-car crash 11 laps into the IZOD IndyCar World Championships. What had been a highly anticipated, aggressively promoted spectacle — the culmination of a season in which Mr. Wheldon won his second Indianapolis 500 — turned into a wake.

The 33-year-old Englishman was airlifted to University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. The race was halted. And the entire sport — from stock cars to dragsters to off-roaders — went into mourning.

The chances of a terrible crash occuring seemed elevated, given the speeds that racers had reached at the oval northeast of Las Vegas.

“It’s friggin’ fast out there,” Danica Patrick, who had posted the fastest practice lap at 224 mph, said Thursday.

“I expect it to be really hairy and dangerous,” Oriol Servia echoed Thursday.

But it was telling that, as usual, drivers weren’t lining up to quit the event because of the racing conditions. Like world-class athletes, drivers have no fear of the demands of competition. A typical motorist might have an elevated heart rate driving 80 mph on a highway; for a racer doing 180 mph on a track, things slow down.

Indeed, Mr. Wheldon was eager to race Sunday. At the start of the IndyCar season, he had no team and no sponsor. He was invited to race in Las Vegas because of his improbable Indy 500 victory and a special promotion that offered him and his team a $5 million bonus, to be split with a lucky fan, if he could win starting from the field’s last position. He was moving up when his No. 77 car was launched into the safety fence atop a guard wall.

It had been five years since an IndyCar driver had died racing and 15 years since the last fatality at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, when an amateur sports-car driver was killed.

The races will go on, as they always do. Perhaps the IndyCar series might learn how to make its drivers safer as a result of this tragedy, but no measures can protect drivers from the hazards of driving 200 mph alongside dozens of other cars trying to claim first place. There is no removing the peril from this sport.

Mr. Wheldon is survived by his wife, Susie, and two sons, 2-year-old Sebastian and 7-month-old Oliver. The sympthies of Las Vegas are with Mr. Wheldon’s family.

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