The death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt led to sweeping safety improvements in NASCAR, which has not suffered a fatality since. Now, 10 years after his death shook all motorsports series to their core, IndyCar has been devastated by the loss of Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon, 33, for several years a St. Petersburg resident and one of the most well-liked drivers in the paddock, died Sunday after his car became ensnarled in a fiery 15-car pileup, flew over another vehicle and landed in a catch fence just outside Turn 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon's death was a stunning loss at a time when improved cars, better safety equipment and energy-absorbing walls had created a sense that, while racing was still dangerous, it was not nearly as deadly.
Wheldon started last in the 34-car field, the largest of the season. The Indianapolis 500 was a 33-car field at a track one mile longer than Las Vegas.
A crowded field, with cars racing two and three wide on a fast oval, leaves no room for error. Many drivers jockeyed early for position. After the accident, veterans openly wondered why so many drivers were so impatient less than a dozen laps into a scheduled 300-mile race.
"One mistake can take 15 people out, and that's what happened there," driver Tony Kanaan said. "I've never seen such a mess in my entire career."
There were concerns about the type of racing IndyCar would put on at Vegas well before Sunday.
"I said before we tested here, having driven a stock car here, this is not a suitable track," driver Dario Franchitti said. "You're just stuck there and people get frustrated and go four wide and you saw what happened. One small mistake from everybody and it's a massive thing."
"This is incredibly sad," fellow driver Oriol Servia said. "We all know this is part of the sport. … 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."
In a phone interview with the St. Petersburg Times last week, Wheldon spoke well of the 2012 car, which he had tested extensively and which he said was "30 percent safer" than the cars which IndyCar has used, with modifications, since 2003. The series was also a major part of developing the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier which Wheldon hit Sunday.
"We have made huge strides (in safety for 2012)," Wheldon told the Times last week.