Earlier, drivers, team members and fans sobbed after they learned of the tragic death of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
Wheldon was caught up in the second wave of multicar crashes early in Sunday's race. He and others were traveling about 220 mph when they collided with the first group of mangled race cars. Wheldon's car went airborne into the catch fence above the SAFER barriers. The coroner's office said yesterday he died of blunt head trauma.
"We lost a good friend. Everybody in IndyCar Series considered Dan a friend," a red-eyed IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti said. "He was one of those special, special people from the first moment he showed up in IndyCar. And he was kind of brash, but he was a charmer.
"Then he became this loving family guy who was still charming, but he had this whole, new side to him [after marriage and the births of two children]. When I think about them, I'm struggling to hold it together."
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves said: "It is hard to put into words how sad this is for all us of here. On the track, we compete, but at the end of the day. we are like a big family, and today we lost a part of that."
Despite winning this year's Indy 500 after rookie J.R. Hildebrand, the leader, smacked a wall on the final lap, Wheldon did not have a full-time ride this year. He had tested the 2012 car, featuring new engines and chassis.
Wheldon was scheduled to replace Danica Patrick next year in the Andretti Autosport car. Patrick is moving to NASCAR's Nationwide Series.
A $5 million bonus lured Wheldon to Las Vegas. Originally, the promotion was intended to lure a few NASCAR Sprint Cup stars to the race. When that didn't happen, the promotion was changed to give Wheldon the opportunity, only because he was not a full-time driver. If Wheldon won, the $5 million would be split among him, the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team and a fan chosen in a contest.
The British-born Wheldon, 33, is the first Indy-car driver to die in a racetrack accident since Paul Dana in 2006 during practice for the season opener at Homestead, Fla. Dale Earnhardt Sr., in 2001, is the last NASCAR driver to die in a track accident.
When these tragedies occur, many people outside racing ask about the sanity of racing. My view has always been fans do not attend races to see drivers die. Do they like seeing crashes? Sure, but they are fans of the drivers and the sport. They don't want to see the drivers injured or worse.
No one forces these drivers to climb into race cars. They know the risks. They race because they love it; it's their passion.
When the grieving for Wheldon is over, IndyCar must address whether its cars are too fast for certain tracks. Before the Vegas race, drivers were concerned about the speeds on the high-banked 1.5-mile oval. There were 34 cars in the Vegas race, one more than for the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the track is 1 mile longer, allowing the cars to spread out more.
"This was the IndyCar version of Talladega, except at 220 miles an hour," the Upper Darby-born Reid said yesterday by phone. "There was no margin for error. The SAFER barrier did its job: Everybody that hit the SAFER barrier walked away. If Dan's car lands any other direction but the way it did, maybe we're not having this discussion."
The goal in auto racing always is to go faster than the other cars, but you can still have great racing at 190 to 200 mph rather than the extremely dangerous 225 mph speeds.
GoDaddy.com has created a memorial website in Wheldon's honor. The website, which includes a Facebook link to leave condolences and remembrances and a career photo retrospective, is at www.danwheldon
According to the Indianapolis Star, fans have left flowers, cards and candles outside the Brickyard. Someone even left a half-gallon of milk, the traditional drink of Indy 500 winners. Nice touch. When I read about the milk, I could see a smiling Wheldon drinking milk after he won the Indy 500, and then pouring it over his head. He was in victory lane at Indy, and he couldn't be happier.
Now, Wheldon is gone, far too soon. Racing will go on, while efforts continue to make it safer. All fans can do for now is keep Wheldon and his family in their hearts.
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