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Dan Wheldon: Death of IndyCar driver rattles 'fearless' racing culture

While IndyCar already plans to introduce a safer car next year, the death of Dan Wheldon is spurring calls for other safety measures, including some introspection on the part of drivers.

By Staff writer / October 17, 2011

Race fans visit a memorial at the main gate at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for race driver Dan Wheldon in Indianapolis, Monday. Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, died Sunday after a massive, fiery wreck at the Las Vegas Indy 300.

Michael Conroy/AP

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Atlanta

Before Dan Wheldon's open-wheeled race car went airborne and crashed into the track fence during a 15-car pileup at an IndyCar Circuit race in Las Vegas Sunday night, the scrappy, popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner had been chasing a $5 million bonus, payable if he won.

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The horrific crash, which killed Mr. Wheldon, shook the motorsport world and is likely to spark safety enhancements over and above those already planned for next year's IndyCar circuit, which includes a completely rebuilt racing car with more safety padding. Sunday night's race was the finale for the the 2011 circuit.

Long before Sunday's crash, IndyCar had helped pioneer major safety improvements that have dramatically reduced the number of deaths in the major motorsports over the past decade, including new, more forgiving track barriers, new head restraints, and, starting next year, a new car, largely tested by Wheldon, with more safety padding and a device to prevent the open-seated cars from going airborne much in the manner of Sunday's brutal crash.

But for many people around the sport, and beyond, Wheldon's death said less about safety mechanics than it did about the nature of open-wheeled racing at the international level, where machismo, bravado, and desperation to win a purse still reign as cars jockey for position with minimal margin for error.

Right before the race, drivers had raised concerns about the extreme speeds being recorded at the Las Vegas track, which has high banks that allow racers to maintain speeds gained on the flats, especially with 34 cars packed onto the oval track. IndyCar Series races are held both on ovals and on streets.

Driver A.J. Allmendinger, who did not race Sunday, told Fox Sports that the accident will likely force a new discussion within IndyCar about safety measures that can be instituted beyond changes to equipment and tracks. That, he said, should mean fewer cars being allowed to race, and some tracks – including the Las Vegas short oval – being scrapped.

"Hopefully, we learn something from this," he said. "First, Dan needs to be remembered before everybody jumps on IndyCar, then there needs to be action. There doesn’t need to be 34 cars; it’s a ticking time bomb. Obviously, with the new car coming in, it needs to be safer, but there are tracks that they don’t need to race at.”

The crash came in Turn 2 on Lap 13, as the field of drivers were gunning their cars in close quarters, in front of what was considered a small crowd of 25,000.

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