LAS VEGAS (AP) – The memory of Dan Wheldon hung over Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, the 11th anniversary of his fatal crash, as NASCAR opened the third round of its playoffs at the track.
It was the first time a major race was held in Las Vegas on the anniversary of Wheldon’s death in 2011. A plaque dedicated to him hangs outside the track.
The 33-year-old British driver was killed when he hit a pole head-on after his car flew and careened about 325 feet into a fence as part of a 15-car crash in the IndyCar season finale.
IndyCar has not returned to Las Vegas since.
As tributes to Wheldon flooded social media Sunday, Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric said before the NASCAR race that Wheldon’s death affected him early in his racing career.
“The significance of Dan’s death was that he was probably the first driver I met going to IndyCar races (to) have a fatal injury,” Cindric told The Associated Press. “It was a really big moment in my life. I think with Dan leaving, I realized how much tighter the sport is as a community.”
Cindrić was 13 years old at the time and had returned from the Legends Race when he learned of Wheldon’s death. His father Tim Cindric is the president of the Penske team and was at the race in Las Vegas. Tim Cindric said his son wore a commemorative Wheldon bracelet for years until it fell apart; Austin Cindric said he put a “Lion Heart” sticker on his legendary car. Lionheart was Wheldon’s nickname.
Chris Powell, president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, said he still thinks about Wheldon and the horrific crash often.
“I think we learned a lot, I think IndyCar learned a lot and, looking back on it now, I think the approach they took could probably be questioned,” Powell told the AP. “But if anyone thought there was a chance it would be more dangerous than any other race on the oval, then they would have changed their mind. But at that time no one thought it would be dangerous.
“And what happened here I believe could have happened at any oval.”
Wheldon did not have a drive in 2011, but he put one together for the Indianapolis 500 and won the race for the second time in his career. Then IndyCar created a special promotion trying to lure stars to the season finale by offering a $5 million bonus to any non-IndyCar regular who could drive from the back of the field to win a race.
Wheldon would split the money with a fan selected in a random drawing.
Allowing Wheldon to accept the challenge was difficult—he won 14 oval races, including two Indy 500s—but because he wasn’t full-time that season, he qualified for the bonus.
Wheldon was a reporter for ABC during the race during the event, and spoke to the announcers during the warm-up laps. In a brief interview, Wheldon defended his involvement and the entire IndyCar series.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could win,” he said from his car. “I certainly do not underestimate the talent of the other drivers in the field. I think IndyCar has a phenomenal field right now.”
Wheldon was killed minutes later when a crash started in front of him at the start of the 12th lap. The race featured 34 cars for the season, and Wheldon had made his way through the field and gained at least 10 places when he encountered an accident and had nowhere to go to avoid spinning cars and flying debris.
An investigation into the crash revealed that Wheldon appeared to be trying to avoid a crowd of cars spinning toward the top — he slowed from 224 mph to 165 — but was blocked by other cars. His first contact with another car sent him flying.
The race was IndyCar’s first in a three-year lease, but the series never returned. Powell said he has communicated with IndyCar many times that he is welcome to return, but believes the series is “too emotional” to return.
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