Commentary

Dan Wheldon still in our thoughts

Updated: March 9, 2012, 7:11 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- I don't know if Dan Wheldon will cross the mind of any driver when the green flag waves here Sunday. I know he will for me.

The last time I was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the day Dan died. This is the first major race weekend at the track since that tragic moment five months ago.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson wore a sticker on his face shield honoring Dan Wheldon at the October 2011 Sprint Cup race at Talladega.

"We'll all think about it at some point," Greg Biffle said Friday. "I thought about it driving in today. It's still devastating."

Jamie McMurray has a decal on his car this weekend to honor Wheldon. So does teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. Wheldon drove for their team owner, Chip Ganassi, for three seasons in IndyCar.

"It means a lot to me to have that sticker on the car," McMurray told ESPN Friday. "It is emotional knowing Dan lost his life here not long ago. It's still just mind-blowing to me that he is not with us anymore.

"For me, becoming a new dad and knowing Dan had two young kids when he was killed, that's really tough. You certainly think of those things."

Some drivers would prefer to forget.

"Obviously, there was a tragedy here last time it was open for business," Kyle Busch said Friday. "But I don't think about it. This is NASCAR weekend and we want to put on a great show for everyone to show the kind of racing this place produces."

Before Wheldon's death, over 10 years had passed since I covered a superspeedway race in which a driver was killed. That was Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.

So much has changed since that day, with safety advancements that have revolutionized auto racing -- the SAFER barrier, head and neck restraints, the safety-designed Car of Tomorrow, etc.

And everyone involved in that process -- IndyCar Series officials, NASCAR officials, scientists and engineers -- deserve enormous praise. The past decade truly has been a renaissance of auto racing safety.

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
Tom Pennington/Getty Images Brad Keselowski on the safety revolution in NASCAR: "Two things in the last 15 years have dramatically changed the sport -- reliability of the cars and safety of the cars. Guys take more chances."

Consequently, it's easy to reach a point of complacency, a flawed feeling of protection and non-vulnerability after years without seeing the worst possible scenario.

Then it happens, as it did for the IndyCar event that October day, a horrible moment that jars you back to reality. And those memories will come flooding back this weekend.

"You try to push it out of your mind and not think about it," Jimmie Johnson said Friday. "But for some of us who were close to Dan, it tugs at you emotionally."

In fairness, that was a different series, different cars, much different circumstances.

"We climb into these cars and take a lot of risks because we know how safe they are," Johnson said. "As for what can happen, we're wired to forget about those things, to be honest with you."

While some drivers may remember Wheldon this weekend, they know they are far safer in Sprint Cup cars than drivers were in open-wheel cars that day.

In a way, that's the problem -- that feeling of being bulletproof.

"Absolutely, lots of guys out here feel that way," Brad Keselowski said Friday. "I'm actually the last guy to get hurt in these cars."

Keselowski suffered a broken foot in a crash at Road Atlanta last year during a testing session. He won the race at Pocono four days later.

Drivers have raced with injuries since NASCAR began. Ricky Rudd once taped his swollen eyelids open so he could race. But Keselowski said drivers have a different and more dangerous attitude today about the risks of racing.

"Two things in the last 15 years have dramatically changed the sport -- reliability of the cars and safety of the cars," Keselowski said. "Guys take more chances. There is less sportsmanship.

"It has played into the hands of some drivers, like Kyle, for instance. He takes a lot of chances out there. He's been in a lot of bad wrecks and walked away from all of them."

So has Keselowski, including the day in Atlanta when he was deliberately wrecked by Carl Edwards, sending Keselowski's car airborne into the fence. Keselowski walked away, too.

Busch said he realizes danger still exists.

"Our cars aren't perfectly safe," Busch said Friday. "I do think there is a false sense of security sometimes because they are so safe. Anything can happen, but that's true if you're walking across the street."

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick, who was on the track when Dan Wheldon lost his life last October, says she feels safer in a stock car.

Most of the drivers who are racing this weekend were not there the day Earnhardt died. Many of them never have seen a driver lose his life in a crash, or even suffer a serious injury.

It's as foreign to them as the days of Roman gladiators. They've seen dozens of terrifying crashes, but every time the driver has walked away.

That's not true for Danica Patrick. She was on this track when Wheldon was killed.

"There won't be a time that I come here and not think about Dan," Patrick said Friday. "It's the moments outside of the car when you remember so much. I don't think it ever completely escapes you."

No one wanted to hear the questions about Wheldon, but they all needed to hear them. These are not bumper cars.

"What we do is dangerous," Biffle said. "It's the underlying factor of what can happen. What I do is concentrate on being as prepared as I can to what can happen."

Patrick admitted she has a greater sense of security in the stock car on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval than she did in the open-wheel car. The Wheldon tragedy happened when a front tire of his car rolled up on the back tire of a car in front of him, causing Wheldon's car to get airborne into the catch-fence. That isn't likely to happen again because the new IndyCar chassis has part of the body covering the rear wheel.

"The things that made that accident so big really doesn't happen in these cars," she said. "There's definitely some peace in that and some factors in these cars that give you some bravery."

Too much bravery for some competitors.

This is a transformative era of safety for NASCAR, a point of great pride for everyone involved in the sport.

But don't let it fool you. Don't get complacent. No driver in any race car is bulletproof.

If they think of Wheldon this weekend or if they don't, that's the message for everyone.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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