The day that racing stopped

Dan WheldonAuto RacingBobby AllisonDaytona 500Tony KanaanDaytona International Speedway

I was covering motorsports for four years before I saw someone die in what might be considered a senseless crash. I didn't know Ricky Knotts, a 28-year-old driver who had spent every dime he and his parents could muster to qualify for the 1980 Daytona 500.

He died on Valentine's Day in a simple crash, a crash exactly like the one that would claim seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt's life 21 years later. I was there for Earnhardt's death, too. Both of those accidents at first glance might seem innocuous, but they were both devastating, head-on collisions into the outside wall at Daytona International Speedway.

When Knotts was killed what struck me was that everyone in the garage area — from the owners to the drivers to the mechanics — kept on working.

The race, a 125-mile qualifying race for the 500, ran to its finish. The victory was celebrated. And the work went on. Tools clinked on metal, but no one was talking. .

It was nothing like what I saw and heard Sunday, after Dan Wheldon, 33, became the first IndyCar driver to die in a racing accident since 2006.

In 1980, I cried for Knotts and for all those men who seemed to me to be unable to mourn. Bobby Allison, a long-time NASCAR legend even then, put an arm around my shoulders and explained what I was seeing.

"This is how you pay respect to someone who races," Allison, now 73, told me that day. "In 1969 my best friend Don MacTavish was killed here right before my eyes. He hit the wall and lost the entire front end of his car. The car spun around and another driver coming out of the turn ran right into him as he sat there, strapped in his seat.

"It was brutal," said Allison, who had seen it all as he drove by. "But I kept driving. I drove the entire race with tears in my eyes. But I drove, because to do anything else would have been giving in to death and no one on the track or in this garage ever does that."

I thought of Allison Sunday and what he said, as I watched on television what happened at Las Vegas Speedway.

Drivers sobbed openly. The race was not restarted — whether it could have been or not, given the damage to the track, walls and fencing. I'd never seen that in more than 30 years of covering motorsports.

It's always been like the theater — the show must go on.

But the Las Vegas Indy 300 didn't on Sunday. Three-time champion Dario Franchitti, when asked if the sport was worth the carnage, didn't hesitate, "Of course it's not," he said.

At the Ravens' game, Baltimore Grand Prix president Jay Davidson got a text alerting him to something "terrible" happening in Las Vegas. When he got home and turned on the television, he was as shocked and horrified as everyone else.

"It was just awful," Davidson said. "It certainly opens your eyes to the perspective of safety versus competitiveness. You see that and you understand why the safety element is so critical."

Of course, there is a big difference between street races and oval races. You're not going to see 225 mph on a street course like Baltimore. The fields are smaller, the distance between cars and walls narrower. And the roads are flat, not banked. Cars don't usually go flying.

Davidson said he doesn't think circumstances of Wheldon's death will have a major impact on the design of the track here.

"We saw the Tony Kanaan incident [Kanaan lost his breaks and drove over the edge of Helio Castroneves' car to slow him down on his way to the tire barrier at the end of Pratt St. during the morning practice before Baltimore GP]," Davidson said. "We know there is an element of danger to it, but generally speeds are lower and incidents are not the kind we saw there."

The Las Vegas crash was the biggest, most brutal crash I've ever seen. And the emotion?

When Allison raced, drivers were used to mayhem and death. It happened. If not all the time, enough of the time to to seal their emotions against the worst possible outcome.

These days? There might have been two or three drivers on the Las Vegas track who have witnessed a death during an open wheel race.

But despite the lack of experience with tragedy, the veteran drivers in the field have no trouble recognizing a recipe for disaster. Even before the race began drivers voiced concern about the 220-plus-miles-per-hour speeds their cars were capable of. And there was worry about overcrowding on the 1.5 mile oval with a field of 34 racecars. Not even the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway fields 34 cars.

Adding to the stress and pressure was the GoDaddy Indy Car Challenge, a $5 million bonus offered to Wheldon and a fan if the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion could drive from last place to victory in the race.

Wheldon blogged for USA Today before the race that he hoped to make up ground quickly to catch points leader Dario Franchitti and Will Power, winner of the Baltimore race, who were starting mid-field. Wheldon had made it to 24th when the accident happened and his car took flight.

The British driver died from what IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard called "unsurvivable injuries".

It's what they all die from.

Fortunately, since Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR and IndyCar have worked hard to come up with more protective devices and equipment – everything from Safer Barriers, a soft-wall construction, designed to soften the impact of collisions with concrete walls, to Hans Devices, that keep drivers' heads stable during high impact crashes.

IndyCar has worked on designs that assure the cars will fly apart, disbursing the killer energy of major impacts that the body would otherwise have to endure.

But nothing being used — yet — could help Wheldon Sunday, as 15 cars collided. Carrying full loads of fuel, many burst into flames and at least two cars took flight, one of them Wheldon's. All of them crashed either into each other or into the track walls or catch fence.

Perhaps listening about the danger of excessive speed and crowded race tracks would have helped.

As for my thoughts about Bobby Allison, I wonder what he thought of the decision to take five laps in honor of Wheldon instead of finishing the race.

Personally, I thought it was a sign of these times — when racing has become safer than it has ever been. A time when tragedy is unexpected and perhaps that much more emotionally brutal because of it.

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ricky Knotts as a teenager when he died. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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