Seldom has winning a championship carried such heartache.
Dario Franchitti had just won a remarkable third consecutive Izod IndyCar Series title, yet he sat in his race car sobbing after a massive wreck claimed the life of his friend and rival Dan Wheldon.
Adding to the agony was that some drivers had voiced concern that despite safety advances in motor racing, a danger lurked at Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that rose above the sport’s inherent risk.
There were 34 cars traveling 220 mph or faster in a close pack on the banked, 1.5-mile oval in IndyCar’s last race of the season.
“We all know this is part of the sport,” driver Oriol Servia said of the danger. “We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat” out on the throttle.
The race was only 11 laps old when Wheldon, 33, was caught up in a fiery, 15-car pileup that claimed his life.
On Monday, as the debate about IndyCar’s safety widened, fans brought various items to a makeshift memorial at one gate of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the Englishman had won the Indianapolis 500 in May for the second time.
A large Union Jack was hung on the gate and the other items included a checkered flag and jugs of milk, the Indy 500’s traditional victory drink.
IndyCar canceled its championship banquet, where Franchitti’s title, his fourth overall, was to have been celebrated Monday night in Las Vegas.
Franchitti began Sunday’s race with an 18-point lead over Australian Will Power. Because the race was canceled after the accident, Franchitti was declared the champion.
Power also was involved in the wreck; the Penske Racing driver was evaluated at University Medical Center in Las Vegas and released.
Another driver, Pippa Mann, was released from the same hospital Monday after surgery on a severely burned pinkie on her right hand. A third driver, JR Hildebrand, was treated for a bruised sternum and released.
For Franchitti, Sunday’s tragedy evoked memories of 1999 when Greg Moore, Franchitti’s best friend, was killed in a racing accident at what is now Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
After a seven-year absence, IndyCar plans to return to the two-mile Fontana oval for a night race Sept. 15.
The safety debate centers on the fact that the IndyCar vehicles, which all have the same bodies and engines, can’t avoid so-called pack racing at very high speeds on a circuit as small and banked as the Las Vegas track. And any contact between the open-cockpit, Indy-style cars typically is dangerous.
But other factors muddle the picture.
IndyCar this year raced on other 1.5-mile tracks, such as Texas Motor Speedway, without serious incidents. Indeed, IndyCar had gone five years without an on-track fatality; the last was Paul Dana in a practice crash in 2006.
In addition, IndyCar next year plans to introduce a car for its teams with added safety features, so it’s unclear what effect, if any, that would have on mitigating the danger seen Sunday.
Ironically, Wheldon, who was not racing full time this year, was helping test the new car. But before the race Sunday, the Andretti Autosport team said it had signed Wheldon to replace the departing Danica Patrick on its team next season.
The series’ 2012 schedule has not been announced, but IndyCar last week said the series planned to return to Las Vegas for its season finale next year.
IndyCar officials declined to comment Monday on whether they plan to reevaluate that race or its safety procedures in general.
After Wheldon’s death was announced, Franchitti was asked about the safety concerns.
“We’ll discuss it and we’ll sort it out,” he said, “but now’s not the time.”