Wheldon's death casts pall over sport

LAS VEGAS -- Every race car driver starts every event knowing that the worst moment is possible. And every driver hopes never to see it.

That hope was lost again Sunday.

In a single breath, a much-anticipated IndyCar Series season finale became an unimaginable snapshot of carnage, tragedy and sadness.

Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the most popular drivers in open-wheel racing, lost his life at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a horrific, multicar crash only 11 laps into the event.

With the race called off by officials, the drivers decided to honor Wheldon with a five-lap tribute, slowly circling the track in three-wide formation. Fans stood and reverently applauded as the cars went by the grandstands. Bagpipes played on the public address system.

In 30 years as a sports reporter, it was one of the saddest moments I've witnessed.

"All of us in IndyCar died a little today," said a distraught Chip Ganassi, for whom Wheldon drove from 2006 to 2008.

"Right now I'm numb and speechless," Dario Franchitti said. "One minute we were joking around in driver introductions. The next minute, Dan's gone."

Franchitti won his fourth IndyCar championship Sunday and his third in a row, not that it mattered to him.

None of that mattered on a day that could have been an exciting end to the 2011 season. IndyCar was returning to the 1.5-mile Vegas oval for the first time in 11 years.

This was going to be a celebration. Wheldon would not have been in this event if not for an opportunity at a $5 million bonus, a promotional gimmick that only he accepted.

IndyCar had offered any driver who was not a 2011 series regular a chance to split a $5 million bonus with a fan if the driver won the event. Series officials were hoping some NASCAR drivers would try it. They didn't.

So Wheldon was the guy. Wheldon, the 2005 series champion, didn't have a full-time ride and had competed in only two events in 2011.

If not for the promotion, it's unlikely he would have been in a race car Sunday. Here's a thought: Give the bonus money to Wheldon's family.

The promotion was only part of the show. This also was Danica Patrick's last race as a full-time IndyCar competitor. She wanted to leave with a rare victory. Instead, she left in tears.

"I was really nervous coming into today," Patrick said before knowing Wheldon had died. "Then it happened. It was like a movie scene they try to make look as gnarly as possible. Chunks of fire were everywhere, and we were driving through it."

I've watched many terrifying multicar accidents in NASCAR events at Talladega and Daytona over the years, but nothing like this.

It was devastation.

Some of the 15 cars involved were balls of fire, flying through the air over other cars before massive collisions with the wall and catch fence. A debris field on the track looked like the remains of a housing subdivision after a tornado.

"It was complete chaos," driver Alex Lloyd said. "All of a sudden, the whole track was just littered with car parts. A lot of us thought something might happen. We knew there was going to be some trouble."

Will Power's car went airborne from the apron of Turn 2 all the way to the outside wall. He was fortunate. Power walked away but was taken to a local hospital because of lower-back pain. He was treated and released.

Wheldon's car also went skyward like a missile as it climbed over another car, but his machine burst into flames as the top of the car slammed into the catch fence, shearing off the roll bar area.

Pippa Mann was helped from her mangled wreckage in tears, possibly more from the shock of what she just witnessed more than any pain she was experiencing.

Mann and JR Hildebrand also were transported by ambulance to a hospital for tests but were not seriously hurt. They were held overnight for observation.

The real pain was inside, deep down, for everyone involved. And it brings about serious questions about racing these cars at more than 220 mph on these high-banked ovals.

The race had 34 cars, the most in series history for any event outside of Indianapolis. It was a factor in the chain-reaction accident that started in the middle of the field.

Franchitti Within five laps people started to do crazy stuff. I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it's about. I said before this is not a suitable track. You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and you have a massive wreck.

-- Dario Franchitti

"Within five laps people started to do crazy stuff," Franchitti said immediately after the accident. "I wanted no part of it. I love hard racing, but that to me is not what it's about.

"I said before this is not a suitable track. You can't get away from anybody. One small mistake and you have a massive wreck."

Almost everyone expected some accidents. They didn't want to consider anything this terrifying.

And it presents a dilemma for IndyCar. The series needs races at the large ovals to bring more interest among fans and more interest among young American drivers.

But something must change.

"Now we need to rethink the way we're doing things," said Tony Kanaan, who started on the pole.

"Believe me, we will address it and find a solution," Franchitti said. "But today is not the day to talk about that. This is a day to remember Dan."

Franchitti, a 38-year-old Scotsman, had known the 33-year-old Wheldon since Wheldon was 6 and racing go-karts in England.

"I just told Dan's son, [2-year-old] Sebastian, Friday that I knew his dad since he was almost his size," Franchitti said.

Franchitti and Wheldon were teammates for several years, first at Andretti Autosport and later with Ganassi's team.

"Dan was brash at first," Franchitti said. "We used to joke as teammates that he was the little brother none of us wanted. But he always was a charmer. And he became this great family man."

Wheldon was set to replace Patrick next season in the GoDaddy-sponsored car for Andretti. Obviously, someone else will get that ride now, but hopefully, Wheldon's name will be placed on the car somewhere.

Every driver had to confront the demon Sunday, the moment every driver hopes never to see. All they can hope now is they never see it again.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.