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Sunday, Apr. 20, 2014

Weldon dies in crash Sunday; Waggoner remembers Indy track wreck that he walked away from

Posted Monday, October 17, 2011, at 12:43 PM

On Sunday afternoon after channel surfing trying to find some relief from the agony of watching the sixth straight loss of the season that was unfolding for the Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati, I tuned into the Indy Racing League's (IRL) Las Vegas 300.

The open wheel race had just begun. I've always had an admiration for the Indy-style cars.

I think it's the distinctive sound of its turbo-charged engines that lured me to be a fan -- even as a youngster.

I watched the television in disbelief as 11 laps into the event, a fiery crash developed in Turn 2.

The car driven by reigning Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon, driving the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara, became ensnarled in a fiery 15-car pileup. His racer flew over another vehicle and landed in a catch fence just outside Las Vegas Motor Speedway and burst into flames.

Wheldon, coming around to the scene of the original accident at full speed of approximately 220 mph, ran over the rear wheel of Paul Tracy's car and launched into the air, eventually ending up in the catch fence that surrounds the backstretch at the 1 1/2-mile banked oval.

The pileup started when New Zealand's Wade Cunningham ran into the back of Canada's James Hinchcliffe's No. 6 Newman Haas Racing car on the backstretch.

You knew it was bad.

About an hour later, the announcement came, the 33-year-old Wheldon, one of the most popular drivers on the IRL circuit, had died of injuries sustained in the crash.

Wheldon, winner of the 2005 and 2011 Indy 500s, had started in the rear of the grid as part of a promotion that would have paid him half of a $5-million bonus to win the race.

Ironically, Sunday's ride was his first since he won the Indy 500 in May.

His win at Indy was the first for an Englishman since Graham Hill's victory in 1966.

This season, Wheldon didn't have a ride after the Indy win until Sunday's race. He was rumored to probably be the replacement for Danica Patrick after this season when she jumps to NASCAR full-time.

After the announcement of Wheldon's death, the drivers decided to do an emotional five-lap tribute salute in his honor.

My heart sunk with sadness for Wheldon's family -- his wife and two small boys -- ages 2 and 4.

What devastation and grief they must be feeling, but in a profession where drivers are making a living on the brink of death every time they hit the track, we all shouldn't be surprised or shocked when something like this happens.

Immediately, my thoughts flashed back 10 years ago when the TV world witnessed the fatal crash of seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona Speedway.

The death of Earnhardt led to sweeping safety improvements in NASCAR, which has not suffered a fatality since.

It was IndyCar's first fatal accident since Paul Dana died during a morning warm-up at Homestead Speedway in 2006.

Wheldon has been involved in some extensive testing of a new 2012 racer that was to be debuted next IRL season.

IRL deaths have been few, but the other two came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway outside of a regular race.

Scott Brayton died May 1996 in a practice crash and Tony Renna in October 2003 during testing.

Fourteen other drivers have died as a result of racing in the Indy 500.

One area racing fan who was also watching Sunday's tragic events unfold was Lyons resident Larry Waggoner.

Waggoner has been a member of the IMS fire safety crew for 36 years and he remembered a "close call" that Wheldon had during his rookie season in 2002.

Wheldon came out the north chute between turns three and four hot and lost control on a qualifying run.

"He got a little squirrelly and got upside down and scooted down on his top. That's never good if they are upside down," he commented Monday morning. "We got out there and knew he was conscious. There was about seven safety workers and we turned the car around and he just crawled right out. He was fine. That was little scary moment for him."

Speaking of Weldon, Waggoner said, "He was a hard charger and a real personable guy. Everybody liked him. It's like they always say on TV, he had a million dollar smile."

Waggoner was also on the safety fire crew when Tony Renna died when he crashed his racer in 2003 into the fence during testing.

Speaking of the inherent racers face each race, Waggoner said, "They live on the edge all of the time, that is for sure, he (Wheldon) was awful young."

Nick is the assistant editor for the Greene County Daily World. He can be contacted by telephone at 847-4487 or by email at schneider.nick@gmail.com .

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